Problems with Divine Morality

Greta Christina has one of her regular articles on Alternet titled One More Reason Religion Is So Messed Up: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide. (warning: don’t read the comments. Alternet is as bad as youtube.) She’s reacting to a an old post by William Lane Craig about the slaughter of the Canaanites.

(BTW, contra Christina, I would not label Craig a “respected theologian.” He’s an apologist for a narrow tradition of Reformed Evangelical Christianity that includes such creedal beliefs as biblical innerancy and subsitutionary atonement. Theologians define the faith, apologists defend it.)

As with most apologists, Craig’s real audience are the Christians who are beset with doubt or some other problem within their tradition. In this case, Craig is dealing with the question of the atrocities and genocide committed by the Hebrews in the OT. As part of his response, Craig argues that there is no real moral problem with all of it, as a result of his divine command theory of morality.

It basically comes down to a few points:

  1. Morality comes from God.
  2. Since God does not issue moral commands to himself, all actions by God are outside of morality.
  3. Our moral duty is to follow God’s command.
  4. So God deciding to take the lives of the Canaanites is fine, since God is outside of morality. The Israelites committing atrocities is fine, since they were following God’s orders.

Like a lot of Craig’s arguments, this one fits together quite neatly. Like a lot of his arguments, you can poke some substantial holes in it, such as: is it really objective morality if it is based on the whim of a divine being? PZ Myers and Ed Brayton both deal with this and other problems.

Another problem is more practical, and it comes down to Deacon Duncan’s Undeniable Fact, “The Undeniable Fact is that God does not show up in real life. [...] The Inescapable Consequence of this Undeniable Fact is that anyone who wishes to talk about God can only speak of the things men say and think and feel and imagine.”

Since God doesn’t appear before us, everything we know about God comes from what people say, or what we ourselves feel about God. The problems with trusting divine authority that comes from human mouths or our own intuitions should be obvious. If it’s not, Greta brings up the example of the Lafferty brothers.

This is a selection from Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, his examination of the Church of Latter Day Saints and his report on Dan and Ron Lafferty, two Mormon fundamentalists who murdered their sister-in-law and her baby. Here Krakauer is talking to Dan Lafferty after his conviction, and comparing Dan to the 9/11 terrorists:

What about Osama’s underlings, the holy warriors who sacrificed their lives for Allah by flying jumbo jets into the World Trade Center? Surely their faith and conviction were every bit as powerful as Dan’s. Does he think the sincerity of their belief justified the act? And if not, how can Dan know that what he did isn’t every bit as misguided as what bin Laden’s followers did on September 11, despite the obvious sincerity of his own faith?

As he pauses to consider this possibility, there comes a moment when a shadow of doubt seems to flicker across his mien. But only for an instant, and then it’s gone. “I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet,” Dan says. “They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I’m not.

“I believe I’m a good person,” Dan insists. “I’ve never done anything intentionally wrong. I never have. At times when I’ve started to wonder if maybe what I did was a terrible mistake, I’ve looked back and asked myself, ”What would I have done differently? Did I feel God’s hand guiding me on the twenty-fourth of July 1984?“ And then I remember very clearly, ”Yes, I was guided by the hand of God.“ So I know I did the right thing. Christ says, ”If you want to know if something is true, believe. And I’ll help you know the truth.“ And that’s what he did with me.

“I’m sure God knows I love Him. It’s my belief that everything will work out, and there will be a happy ending to this whole strange experience. I’ve just had too many little glimpses through the thin fabric of this reality to believe otherwise. Even when I have tried not to believe, I can’t.” (pp. 320-321)

The bothers were incited by their prophet, Robert Crossfield, their inner witness (see Dan’s line about the hand of God) and their own internal convictions that this murder was the will of God. The problem is merely that they were wrong about what God wanted. By Craig’s logic, this was a mistake, not a murder.

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  • trj

    Let’s see, if I kill somebody for my own personal reasons I am immoral. If I kill somebody because God told me to I am 100% moral.

    Only my intentions decide if I am acting morally, not the actual act of killing. I’m sure my victim’s family and friends will come to understand that.

    • trj

      That should probably be: “Only my motives decide…”

  • Barry Hardee

    Divine command morality isn’t as clean and simple as Craig makes it seem to be and there is a lot to discuss. I would say this though, that the story of the Cannanites taken within the story line doesn’t fall into the problem of the “undeniable fact”. The story if true, Israel had witnessed 40+ years of events that would seem to be supernaturally inspired: plagues, manna, water coming out of a rock, red sea, etc. If these didn’t happen then the argument stands, but if they did it might be a justification that you were following the will of an extremely powerful being, and not just the will of a misguided prophet. Now if the Lafferty brothers (great book btw) had a history of miracles that not even James Randi could explain, the discussion might be different.

    • trj

      Even if it could hypothetically be determined without a doubt that God exists, that in itself wouldn’t tell us if it would be moral to follow his commands. After all, we should expect a dishonest, malevolent god to claim he is moral, just as an honest, benevolent god would.

      The best way to determine the moral nature of a god would therefore be to ignore the god’s (and his followers’) alleged claims to morality and instead evaluate whether his actions constitute moral behavior.

      Seeing how Yahwe behaves in OT, and considering the fate he has in store for the majority of humans according to NT, I can only conclude that he is very often deeply immoral. Good thing that bastard doesn’t exist.

      • Barry Hardee

        The problem is what then is your standard that you will judge actions from whether it is gods or a humans. That is the whloe oint of the debate since there is very little agreement across culture and history on what the ultimate basis of good actually should be. I’ve also heard christians use an argument that is similiar to an argument used for womens rights. Simply put: womans body=womans choice of what happens in her body…………Gods universe=Gods choice of what happens in His universe.

        • Nzo

          There is not, and never will be, an objective standard for morality.

          To even continue on this idiotic line of thought, you have to prove that somehow the subjective morality is a bad thing, and that we somehow need one global source for morality.

          After that, you have to deal with the fact that the christian god is morally bankrupt, so who exactly should we get our morality from?

          • Custador

            This is the problem I have with Thom Stark’s deconstruction of the Paul Copan article that Vorjack posted about. Liberal christians and non biblical-literalists have this affectation that they’re superior to fundies because they struggle with the horrible aspects of their faith and don’t just accept the silly apologest explanations – but they ignore or seem unaware that every theist has to accept some degree of apologia and to ignore or be ignorant of the point you just made to maintain their faith.

            • Thom


              I don’t believe in objective morality either, nor do I offer any kind of defense for theism. I actually am not a theist; neither am I an atheist. I’m an agnostic with hope. But to say that the Christian god is “completely morally bankrupt” is an overstatement, even though I have no stake in defending whichever version of the Christian god it is you have in mind when you affirm this.

            • Custador

              I disagree.

              In his own mythic biography, the God of Christianity variously condones rape, pillage and slavery, urges genocide, commits genocide himself, recommends cutting babies from the women of pregnant enemies, and rapes a teenage girl.
              Then let’s examine the Ten Commandments (there are 613 commandments in all, by the way). These get heralded as the all-encompassing moral compass for us all, God’s ultimate guide to ethics – but have you ever actually read them? The first three commandments are about only worshipping Yahweh, not worshipping anything else and not using Yahweh’s name “in vain” (whatever the hell that means). Commandment four demands that you have to take Sundays (or Saturdays, depending who you believe) off work, number five demands that you respect your parents and “honour” them (personally I have a giant douche-bag for a father, and the only honour he’ll ever get from me if we meet again is a closed fist – I doubt I’m alone in that), promising that you’ll live long and prosper if you’re nice to Ma and Pa.

              It’s not until we get to commandment number five that we get anything that remotely resembles moral – Don’t murder, don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be jealous.

              That’s IT?! Ignoring for a fact that some of them run completely counter to other commandments – THAT is touted as some kind of a moral code? There are four in that list that are actually realistic and moral (don’t be jealous is just silly, that’s like saying “don’t be human”), and those four are instinctive to socialised humans anyway.

              So yes. The Christian God is morally bankrupt.

            • Thom

              Obviously I agree that all of those things you cite are immoral, but my point was that there isn’t one “Christian god,” there are literally hundreds of different conceptions of who the Christian God is, and many of them would reject all of those characteristics as properly applied to God. Theology isn’t as stable as your critique necessitates. If we take an evolutionary approach to religion, as I do in some ways, then we understand that ideas about God developed, and continue to develop. You reject them all and that’s perfectly legitimate. But for most Christians, God is a God of love. Yes, most of these Christians maintain a view of scripture that is in conflict with the God they profess to believe in, but from my perspective, their (generally “better”) ideas about God are on the same ground as the ideas reflected in the texts you cited. Right along with you, I’ll critique Christians for glossing over texts that don’t comport with their ideas about divine morality, but I’ll also allow them to make revisions; I just want them to be conscious that that’s what they’re doing. All theology is humanly-constructed, and speculative, but good theology is also much more than that. I think it can be a very healthy enterprise, even while it can also be a very unhealthy one, like many things. I think my understanding of theology is a bit more realistic and humanistic than yours. You seem to be giving legitimacy only to the most ardent form of fundamentalism.

            • Custador

              “Yes, most of these Christians maintain a view of scripture that is in conflict with the God they profess to believe in”

              Most of them have never read scripture beyond the edited highlights fed to them by their pastor, and those that have are highly selective about which parts they believe in and apply. How do liberal Christians decide which bits of the Bible to follow? By applying their own subjective moral codes that don’t come from the Bible!

              So, if we accept that Christian God = Bible God, then we have to accept that Christian God is morally bankrupt. If we don’t accept that Christian God = Bible God, then we have to accept that Christians do not believe in their own holy book. Now, I get what you’re saying, and I accept that it’s probably true (there are as many versions of Yahweh as there are Christians), but I would argue that my own understanding is (while less humanistic) far more realistic than yours – Because I’m prepared to stand up and say that the process of making sh*t up as they go doesn’t make them Christians, it makes them solipsists, and that by self-identifying as Christian, all that liberal Christian solipsists do is to lend legitimacy to the crazy mofos and shelter them from what should be the consequences of their fundamentalist, hate-spewing evilness.

          • Barry Hardee

            ” you have to prove that somehow the subjective morality is a bad thing”

            Let’s grant this is true, and subjective morality is way things actually operate.

            “After that, you have to deal with the fact that the christian god is morally bankrupt, so who exactly should we get our morality from?”

            If we grant the first statement, how are we to read your second judgement on the christian god?

            Is bankrupt in the sense that it doesn’t work, or do you mean that its not right or fair? If the first, I think it is within bounds of a subjective belief, but if it’s the second your still using some standard to make an objective claim.

            I don’t follow this switch

            • Nzo

              There’s not a switch. Anyone without a severe psychological disorder would consider the christian god completely morally bankrupt. One of the worst characters of any book in the history of the world.

              Do I really need to mention all the bad things your god does?

              To bluntly put it, if the subjective morality of every sane human on earth would condemn what your god has done, I’d say it’s a fairly solid basis for calling your god morally bankrupt.

            • Barry Hardee

              I’m just looking for how you define morally bankrupt, is that just your personal preference that has been offended or is there a book that can define morality for me that everyone agrees on.

              While reading a book of Robert Pirsig, my notions of how sanity is viewed and judged were uniquely challenged and informed. Since the subjective morality of every person in this world and in previous times has been different are you basing sanity or insantiy on how closely their beliefs match yours? To be blunt as well, it is a very myopic and naive view that claims that all sane people at all times have agreed on a view morality.

            • Nzo

              Waxing philosophical rarely accomplishes anything.

              Unless you’re specifically arguing that the christian god is not morally bankrupt to any sane person’s subjective morality, you’re just trying to obscure the issue.

              Arguing the semantics of psychology and philosophy is masturbation. We could argue that everything is subjective until nothing means anything, but again, that accomplishes nothing.

              If that’s the road you’re headed down, do it on your own. I’ll not be a party to a circle-jerk of un-definitions and infinite points of view with which to quarrel before the first step of an argument is even begun.

              As for the christian god being morally bankrupt, I have serious doubts that anyone that knows the facts about the bible would choose the christian god over any number of other gods for morality. You could find better values from worshipping… I can’t even think of a single entity, imagined or otherwise, with worse values than the christian god.

              As for sanity, I’ll go ahead and define the insane as genocidal, sacrifice-loving, rape-loving, slavery-loving, baby-killing, and eternal torture-loving as insane. You’re more than welcome to debate this if it seems that the above is close enough to your beliefs to not be considered “insane”

            • John C

              Yes, that’s how He ‘appears’ to you now NZO because you’re attempting to see Him by your own (dim) light as opposed to seeing Him by the Light He offers whereby one may see Him in a true Light. Ps 36:9

              Btw…my own light is dim too. John 1:4

              Religion? Heavens NO!

            • Nzo

              Is there anyone here that takes John C seriously anymore? Or is he just a black hole of deranged philosophical beer-goggles for jesus?

        • trj

          Like Nzo said, there is no such thing as an objective standard of morality. The essence of morality is about making choices that fit the circumstances. That last bit is important. Behavior that would be considered moral under normal circumstances can be considered immoral under different circumstances, and vice versa. Killing, stealing, lying – these are actions we normally consider immoral, yet in some situations they can be argued to be necessary to the point where it would immoral not to perform them.

          If you need evidence of this, you need look no further than to the Christian apologists who defend the Biblical genocide and infanticide because, they argue, it was necessary under the circumstances. So much for their precious absolute morality.

          While no precise objective measure of morality is possible, I’d argue that we can at least establish a minimum standard based on certain normative axioms that most people can agree on – like the idea that one should never inflict unnecessary harm on others. By this amazingly simple standard, God’s capricious actions doesn’t make him look good at all (just one example: sending bears to kill 42 children because they mocked a prophet’s baldness).

          • Barry Hardee

            I happen to agree that application of an objective morality is very difficult, because we lack time, wisdom, knowledge, or some times all three to make a good choice.

            Minimum standards for morality based on normative axioms that most people agree on is great idea that I don’t think gains much traction in the real world though.

            Using your example of unnecesary harm, we could see quickly how people can and do disagree. Bush and his buddies felt waterboarding was a necessary infliction of harm to gain intelligence they otherwise couldn’t get. Others have said that this technique is out of bounds for a civilized society to use and was an assault on human rights. They obviously don’t agree on what is necesary, so what do we do?

            Another area where we see moral inconsistency is in the area of letting people make their own lifestlye choices. Take California for example there is a large push for legalizing marijauna completely based on the ideal of human liberty. In the same state though we have a city that has effectively banned Happy Meals. Where is the freedom and liberty in that decision? How we make such inconsistent decisions baffles me. So we end up passing laws that protect people from themselves and nothing is safe Happy Meals or weed and we end up in a world where I’ll be trying to figure out what the sea shells are for!

            • Nzo

              Bush and his buddies felt waterboarding was a necessary infliction of harm to gain intelligence they otherwise couldn’t get. Others have said that this technique is out of bounds for a civilized society to use and was an assault on human rights. They obviously don’t agree on what is necesary, so what do we do?

              These are called “war crimes” for a reason. Not only is torture inhumane, it’s useless at getting good intelligence. Some sadist either had enough power to do so, or convinced someone with enough power to do so, to allow that.

              As for the laws, it’s pretty easy to see how we get such contradictory bullsh*t. The lawmakers are a select few. They all have their subjective moralities – some choose to pass laws that dictate what people can and cannot do, others choose to try and repeal those laws.

            • trj

              Minimum standards for morality based on normative axioms that most people agree on is great idea that I don’t think gains much traction in the real world though.

              Actually, we use common standards all the time, since most people do agree on certain standards. While it’s not exactly an axiomatic basis, an overwhelming majority never the less can agree that hurting, killing, and stealing is on principle immoral and to be avoided. The same applies to genocide, infanticide, rape, or slavery. Thus we have, effectively, a common minimum moral standard.

              Then there are the more nuanced questions of, say, abortion, drug use, taxation, civil liberties, etc, to which people have very different opinions, but such questions are mainly outside the scope of the common minimum standard.

              When I evaluate whether God and his apologists are moral I hold them up to the bare minimum of stadards. A god that commands or condones infanticide, genocide, rape, and slavery, and apologists who defend such things as being moral, are immoral in my book. I’m sure you can turn this into an academic discussion about subjective norms, but if so you need to tell me how genocide is 100% moral by any sane standard.

        • Meamoi

          No objective morality?

          I would claim false. I have heard, in my time, a few completely objective ways to base morality:

          1. Morality does not exist in lower lifeforms. They follow instincts, and cannot reason actions. The extreme version would be a rock. A rock falling and cracking another rock, if it does not affect a reasoning creature, is neither a good nor evil act. A mouse being killed heartlessly (by a mouse trap) per say, would be a slightly evil act that some would deem evil and cruel, but not as considered as evil or as punishable someone killing a human. By these patterns, we can deduce that good and evil derive from a creatures ability to reason, it’s ability to make choice.

          2. As good & evil derive from choice, we can see other points and judge them accordingly. Points of contention become predictable. For example, abortion. A new individual would present a plethora of choices to the world, and be able to make a large number of choices. However, the limitations of being forced to raise an individual that they are not prepared to raise severely reduces the woman’s chioces. Thus, there is a conflict between quantity and quality of future choices, and it becomes and area of hot debate. In areas where the differentiation between choice and lack of choice is cleaer (such as the old issues of slavery), even defenders of slavery were on record as calling it “a necessary evil”.

          3. In short, the morality of an act can calculated by the quantity vs. quality of choices.

          4. I propose an an algorithm:
          The percentage increase or decrease in available choices (a negative value for a percentage decrease and a positive value for a percentage increase) times the sum of the average approval/disapproval of affected parties on a scale of -100 to 100… or, more clearly,

          Morality = A times (B1 + B2 + B3 … BX)
          where A = percentage change in available choices
          and B = the average approval rating for an affected person for all available choices combined.

          There, we have an objective rating method for judging morality. It may not be perfect, but it is mathmatically objective. Happy?

          • LRA

            Ummmm, no. Since not all choices are equally valuable, we must begin to assign values to them. This is subjective depending on individuals and culture and it is the EXACT SAME PROBLEM that the utilitarians ran into.

            Perhaps you should read a critique of Bentham and Mill? There’s a reason the “moral calculus” is a failed project.

          • Len

            Your value B (“the average approval rating for an affected person for all available choices combined”) is based on experience and societal acceptance of the action. This is based on the reasoning you mentioned in your point 1, above. In other words it’s subjective. Your morality is therefore also subjective.

          • trj

            Like LRA says, you can’t simply add the B factors. You need to (subjectively) weigh each one.

            And don’t forget to factor in the (you guessed it – subjectively determined) probabilities of your actions having the desired effect, and also correct for lack of information about the consequences of your actions.

            Also, you should consider that not every opinion might be objectively useful. To which degree should we include opinions that are based on information which we know is factually wrong or skewed? Maybe we need to assign (subjective) priorities to them?

            All in all it’s not a feasible formula.

    • Yoav

      This just beg to be Godwined. The average German during WW2 had lived under a regime that was extremely powerful and had complete control over his life and death, we may be able to understand why someone would follow the orders of such a regime out of fear yet we don’t consider it to be a moral choice.

  • LRA

    How does someone as supposedly intelligent as WL Craig not see a Euthyphro dilemma in what he just said???

    Furthermore, how does someone as supposedly intelligent as WL Craig claim universal morality and then put the actions of God *outside* of that category?

    Finally, how does someone as supposedly intelligent as WL Craig not see the blaring Biblical contradictions in statements like “God is good” and “God is love” when God also commits genocide and hardens people’s hearts for his own “gain”?

    It makes no sense.

    • Gabrielle Guichard

      It does make sense.
      That Craig is a bad man, but not an idiot one. How does he explain that god can be a loving killer? For example, he says that infanticide is a blessing. The children go straight to heaven. Heavens is a notion unknown of OT, but Craig does not raise the point.
      The collateral damages, as the grieving parents, don’t bother him much more. Why should they? These parents, if they disagree with god’s orders and their consequences, prove to be bad and have to be put to death.

  • Custador

    This is wonderful:

    “The Undeniable Fact is that God does not show up in real life. [...] The Inescapable Consequence of this Undeniable Fact is that anyone who wishes to talk about God can only speak of the things men say and think and feel and imagine.”

  • WMDKitty

    “But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I’m not.”

    *stab stab stabbity stab*