XFiles Friday: Sneaky summaryApril 12, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 7)
I was going to move on to Chapter 8 this week, but I noticed a couple interesting things going on the the chapter summary that make it worth a little extra attention. In particular, Geisler and Turek use the summary to introduce new material, not previously discussed. As we shall see however, the new material fares no better than the bankrupt and superstitious morality that G&T did discuss in Chapter 7.
The new material shows up in point #4 of the summary.
4. This Moral Law is God’s standard of rightness, and it helps us adjudicate between the different moral opinions people may have.
(Note: just as an aside, this statement contradicts the claim in point number 1 about there being an absolute standard of right and wrong “written on the hearts of every human being.” If the same “Moral Law” were already written on every person’s heart, we wouldn’t need to adjudicate between the different moral standards we find in different people in real life.)
Without God’s standard, we’re left with just that—human opinions. The Moral Law is the final standard by which everything is measured. (In Christian theology, the Moral Law is God’s very nature. In other words, morality is not arbitrary—it’s not “Do this and don’t do that because I’m God and I said so.” No, God doesn’t make rules up on a whim. The standard of rightness is the very nature of God himself—infinite justice and infinite love.)
This is new material. Geisler and Turek have said nothing about morality being defined by God’s nature up to now. But here it is, in the summary, simply tossed in as though it was just a parenthetical remark that has nothing to do with the central argument that the existence of morality requires the existence of God. That’s a shame, because in reality it has a great deal to do with the validity of their argument.
Theologians sometimes come to the “morality = God’s nature” position because they see the problems inherent in adopting either of the two alternatives. If, as Geisler and Turek discuss, morality were just a matter of God’s whim, then nothing is inherently wrong in and of itself, it’s only wrong if it’s against God’s will. As shown by circumcision and the genocide of the Amalekites, God’s will, even by Christian standards, can be very different for different people and at different times. Since God does not show up in real life to explain to us what His current will is for us today, this leaves morality in the highly relativistic realm of what each person subjectively feels God’s will is for his or her conduct (leading to all sorts of “lying for Jesus” and oppressing those you disapprove of and permitting yourself certain illicit indulgences and so on).
On the other hand, if things are right or wrong in and of themselves, then Geisler and Turek have no way to argue that the existence of morality depends on the existence of God. Why would it? God did not create the rightness of the right or the wrongness of the wrong. What’s more, if there is an objective standard of morality that God did not create, then it is possible to judge the rightness and wrongness of God’s own actions, such as demanding animal sacrifices, genital mutilation of baby boys, and genocide. Or, to take a little more enlightened view of things, it would be possible to look at certain commands attributed to God by men, and to say, “A good God would never command such things.”
Traditionally, the relationship between God and morality has been either one or the other: either nothing is good or evil in and of itself, and only becomes good or evil as God’s will decrees it to be so, or else there is some external factor, some non-divine, independent standard of right and wrong that even an allegedly omnipotent deity must conform to. Neither alternative, however, works out well with what Christians need, so lately they’ve proposed a third alternative: that morality is objectively defined by God’s own nature. Unfortunately, this alternative combines the worst problems of both of the above alternatives!
Let’s define a few terms to make discussion easier. We’ll use the term “relativistic morality” to refer to the view that nothing is evil in and of itself, and only becomes immoral relative to God’s will whenever God decides He doesn’t want anyone doing it. “Objectivist morality,” then, would be the alternative that says things are inherently right or inherently wrong, based on their consequences, and therefore even God must live up to these moral standards. And just to emphasize the distinction between these two alternatives, and the one proposed by Geisler and Turek, let’s use “inherited morality” to mean the view that God passively receives His definition of morality from His own nature.
The first problem, therefore, with inherited morality is that God neither creates nor defines it. It is, essentially, a mere re-hash of objectivist morality, framed in a way that associates it with God somehow. But it’s a weak association, because it’s still imposed on God from outside of His will. He has no control over His own nature; He is what He is and there’s nothing He can do about it, because if He can change His own moral nature, we’ve simply transformed inherited morality into relativistic morality—God’s will arbitrarily decides what to define as “right” and what to define as “wrong.”
The second problem, then, is one that inherited morality shares with relativistic morality: God does not show up in real life, so we have no way to study His nature and thus gain an objective understanding of what is truly right and what is truly wrong. We have a bunch of things that men claim about God’s nature in His absence, but they’re contradictory things, like “It’s ok to sell your daughters into sexual slavery,” or “it is evil to fail to kill every man, woman, child, pet, and livestock in Amalek,” or “God wants you to steal the land of the Canaanites (and by extension, of the Palestinians).” And again, because we have no objective access to God that would allow us to reliably determine what His nature is, there is no way we can say, “God could not possibly have commanded that because it would be against His nature.”
A third problem with inherited morality is that it fails to explain how a thing (circumcision for example) can be morally right for some people at the same time it is morally wrong for others. Does God have multiple contradictory natures? If so, which one is THE “moral law” that Geisler and Turek keep referring to. And does God’s nature change over time, or was the genocide of the Amalekites just as evil in the Old Testament as genocide is today? Which of the two moral standards is actually contrary to God’s nature (thus making God a sinner if He upholds it)?
A fourth problem is that if God’s morality is merely the result of His own nature, why should men, who are not gods by nature, be judged by that standard, instead of by a standard that springs from what we are? God, after all, deserves no credit for simply behaving according to His nature, He’s just being what He is. Why, then, does He condemn us for following the same example, acting according to our own natures?
This leads to the fifth problem, which is that if “good” means simply “according to God’s nature,” it is tautological, and even meaningless, to say that God is “good.” Every person who calls God “good” is implicitly measuring God against some kind of objective moral standard; if that standard is God’s own nature, then we’re just measuring God against Himself. Even Adolph Hitler was good relative to Adolph Hitler!
Sixth, inherited morality is a bully’s morality. Like relativistic morality, it all comes down to “might makes right.” From a human perspective, it makes no difference whether God’s moral code is being imposed on us because He wills it or because His natural instincts drove Him to. If “good” just means “whatever God demands of us” and “evil” just means “whatever God forbids,” then He’s still imposing an arbitrary moral standard on us, because the things He imposes are not actually good or evil in and of themselves. They’re just the things His will or His nature arbitrarily designate as “good” or as “evil.”
And lastly, the inherited morality explanation is ultimately a mere superstition, and not an explanation of morality at all. We observe that people have moral codes that guide their behavior, and Christians merely attribute this morality to God, without being able to demonstrate any actual connection between the two, and without even having a clear description of what such a connection would consist of if we could look for it.
Meanwhile in the real world, it’s not terribly difficult to understand the factors that actually do lead to the spontaneous emergence of various moral codes. The same natural empathy that allows us to look at someone else and tell whether they are happy or sad or angry or frightened also tends to create a sympathetic response in our own emotions. We feel bad when we’re near someone who is sad, we get mad when someone is angry with us, we worry when we see fear in others.
Not always, of course, but the tendency is there, and it’s a good trait to have. If the other members of your tribe start acting scared, for instance, you might be in danger too. Fear makes you more alert, more likely to survive the danger. Nor are humans the only species whose odds of survival are improved by sympathetic responses to the feelings of others–many other socially-organized species display this behavior as well.
This is the “moral law” that is “written on our hearts.” We empathize with the feelings of others, and especially with those who are threatened in some way, because whatever threatens them may soon threaten us as well. And because certain behaviors have social consequences, we develop feelings about those behaviors. Whenever we hear about crimes like murder, rape, slavery, assault, theft, and so on, we sympathize with the victims, because if we don’t, we may become victims too. Our natural social empathies, plus the social consequences of a given behavior, become the objective, natural moral code by which we measure the morality or immorality of the behavior.
Of course, this means morality is more than just a simple list of Ten Things You Must Not Do Or God Will Hate You. Morality and ethics need to be approached as a complex, reality-based problem whose constraints are defined by predictable consequences and their meaning for the rest of us. In other words, it takes hard work, and not simplistic superstitions like the one proposed by Geisler and Turek. But people will always be attracted to simplistic solutions like Christianity because hey, who likes hard work, eh?
In the meantime, it’s dishonest for Geisler and Turek to claim, as they do at the end of Chapter 7, that “atheism cannot justify why anything is morally right or wrong.” If Christians are unwilling to do the work, then it’s Christians who cannot justify right or wrong. Merely attributing morality to an invisible deity does not justify it, it simply propagandizes the deity. And if you have to lie in order to claim that your God deserves credit for morality, then you’re working for a pretty poor God.