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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