God Doesn’t Solve the “Who Sez?” Problem

I’ve finished reading Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God. It was a hard slog, especially the last section, in which he announces he’s not going to argue for God’s existence any more because everyone already agrees with him whether they admit it or not (yes, he actually says that), and instead devotes his time to writing theological fan-fiction about how happy and glorious and wonderful everything will be when Jesus comes back.

I’ve addressed Keller’s arguments regarding inherited religious beliefs and truth-seeking methods of belief formation, as well as whether evolved reasoning abilities are trustworthy. This will be my third and last post.

As part of his everyone-already-agrees-with-me argument, Keller says that people’s moral intuitions can only be justified if God exists:

Most people feel that human rights are not created by us but are found by us, that they are there and must be honored by majorities, whether they like them or not. But… [if there is no god] who gets the right to put their subjective, arbitrary moral feelings into law? You may say “the majority has the right to make the law,” but do you mean that then the majority has the right to vote to exterminate a minority? If you say “No, that is wrong,” then you are back to square one. “Who sez” that the majority has a moral obligation not to kill the minority? [p.159]

Just in the spirit of being absolutely fair to Keller (because I’m nothing if not fair!), I’ll acknowledge that these are legitimate things to ask. The question of who gets to make the rules, and the meta-rules about what sorts of rules they can and can’t make, are issues that every society has to grapple with.

That said – and now I’m going to be less charitable – Keller obviously isn’t asking these questions because he wants answers. Secular philosophers have written lengthy treatises on the non-supernatural origins of morality, but he doesn’t even acknowledge any of these efforts, much less make any attempt to refute them. Like the creationists who deploy strategic pessimism and insist that scientific mysteries are just too hard for us to figure out, Keller wants us to conclude that our moral views are inexplicable, throw up our hands and say “God did it”.

But here’s the incredible part. You’d think that after making an argument like this, Keller would present a case for why his particular religious beliefs offer a solution to this problem. But the astonishing thing is, he doesn’t. He just takes it for granted that people who believe in God have a firm grounding for their moral views, and moves on without saying anything more about the subject. (The lazy, arrogant “you already know I’m right” mentality probably detracts from the perceived necessity of actually defending disputable points.)

Keller’s implicit claim is that God’s existence settles moral debates, but this is obviously wrong. Millions of people who believe in God disagree, often starkly and sometimes violently, about what’s moral and what’s not, and they all cite their beliefs about God’s will in favor of those diametrically opposed views. As I said to Peter Hitchens, if the clouds parted and a luminous, bearded figure appeared and boomed out his commandments, we’d be having a different debate, but that’s not the world we live in.

Even admitting God into the picture for the sake of argument, we wind up right back where we were before, facing the problem of who gets to make the rules and why. What happens when someone says, “God spoke to me and said he wants me to kill you”?

If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. [p.162]

Again, this claim is left hanging with no justification. Human rights are a modern idea, and one that’s entirely foreign to the Bible, which endorses racism, patriarchy, slavery, divine-right monarchy, and other ideas that we now recognize as antithetical to human rights. Keller’s attempt to claim this idea for Christianity is another example of how the forces of religious orthodoxy battle to hold back moral progress as long as possible, and then when they finally lose, turn around and claim credit for the outcome they fought to prevent.

The answer to Keller’s “who sez” quandary, as I’ve written before, is that morality isn’t a question of “who”, but a question of “why”. Morality is and can only be a set of principles which rational agents freely agree to because it produces the greatest good for everyone in the long run. If we let reason and the evidence guide us, we’ll eventually converge on the same conclusions. Belief in gods makes that consensus harder, not easier, to reach, by encouraging people to consider their own personal opinions and prejudices to be sacrosanct.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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