Atheists and Morality: On Christian Theories of Ethics

Atheists and Morality: On Christian Theories of Ethics January 30, 2018

I was recently railing against naive claims that some theists mistakenly throw about. Let me give you some more of the chapter I wrote for John Loftus’ book Christianity Is Not Great, a continuation of that last post:

christianity is ot great loftusOn Christian Theories of Ethics

I will endeavor to run briefly through two major Christian ethical theories to see if they hold up.

Christian Natural Law Theory

Christians claim that they are more entitled to make moral proclamations than atheists, that they have some more direct conduit to the fount of morality than their heathen counterparts. God is, in some way or another, the benchmark, the objective standard, or the oasis of moral rectitude.

Historically speaking, the Natural Law Theory has been the prevalent system adhered to by Christians from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas through to more recent times and thinkers such as C.S Lewis (and the Catholic Church, though it is debatable as to whether its leaders and theologians qualify as modern thinkers!). The main idea is that God has designed and actualized the world in such a way that morality is woven into its fabric. Thus morality can be derived from the world around us both in doing the right thing and having the right motive. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans:

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them… (Romans 2:14-15)

Of course, the obvious rejoinder here is that if morality is built into the very world around us (perhaps “written on our hearts”), then Christians have no more privileged access to this morality than non-Christians. As theologian J. Philip Wogaman states in Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction:

All people are capable of knowing natural law, which is universal, whether or not they are Christian. Thus Aristotle and other philosophers, depending on the clarity of their thought, are capable of understanding and dependably presenting and applying natural law… [H]uman law exists as the specific application of natural law to the circumstances of earthly life. Human law is the enactment of law by civil authority.

… It does not rest upon special Christian revelation.[i]

Natural law is a reflection of divine or eternal law in the same way that one can differentiate between cardinal and theological virtues. This presents a problem:

But how, then, can a philosopher (like Aristotle) with no insight into the supernatural end of humankind fully grasp the significance of the natural law that finds its true expression as a means to an end? … to Thomas [Aquinas], the ends of natural law, which can be grasped by natural reason, are still divinely appointed means to the more ultimate end even when that in itself cannot be grasped by natural reason alone.[ii]

Of course, such a theory sounds nice, but what does it really mean to have something written on our hearts? What is the ontology of such morality? These fundamental philosophical questions remain unsatisfactorily answered.

What is interesting is that a book like Wogaman’s which documents the historical ‘evolution’ of Christian ethical thought and philosophy, as fascinating and comprehensive as it is, is a testament to the fact that Christians themselves struggle to agree on a “true” (divine or divinely inspired) ethical system. It is hard for Christians to take the intellectual high ground with regard to moral philosophy when they cannot even agree among each other!

Divine Command Theories

Yes, the title to this section uses the word “theories” not “theory.” There is more disagreement to be found among Christians who claim privileged access to moral truth.

The basic premise is this: morality does not exist independently of God, it is instead reflected (or perhaps determined) by God’s commands. God commanded it; therefore, it is good. Of course, Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro, asked, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or rather, does God command it because it is good, or is it good solely because God commands it?

There are two ways which Christians can approach divine commands. First, one obeys such moral commands prudentially, meaning that if one doesn’t, then the eternal hellfires await. Those hot places are not worth entertaining, thus we follow the “good” path. Such a view is integral to the notion that without God, we would all be atheist mass-murderers, and analogies to Hitler abound. This, however, is fallacious in being an argumentum ad baculum, or an appeal to force.

Theologians tend to favor the idea that we follow God’s commands because God is good. The commands reflect his perfectly good nature (remember Craig). Plato’s ruminations, though, leave us with a potential circularity. If God is good, then we have a sort of tautology and cannot have any independent appreciation of the value of his goodness. But if there is an independent criterion then I have no need of God for a moral judgment. Philosopher Kai Nielsen looks at this tautology with reference to the claim “puppies are young”:

If we had no understanding of the word “young” and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a dog was young, we could not know how correctly to apply the word “puppy.”  Without such a prior understanding of what it is to be young we could not understand the sentence, “Puppies are young.”[iii

P. Wesley Edwards, in an excellent essay “Does Morality Depend On God?”, shows us the inherent problems with this approach:

Now for the statement, “God is good,” or more generally, “X is good,” to even make sense, we need some idea of what “good” means. For example, if I say, “Fred is perfectly zugblub,” then you have no idea what I mean unless you have some idea of what “zugblub” means. Suppose after pointing this out to me, I respond, “Fred is the very standard by which zugblub is defined; Zugblub is part of the very essence of Fred. Indeed, Fred actually forms the necessary ground of all zugblub. That is what zugblub means.”

This so-called definition of zugblub communicates no information.  The problem is that I have not defined zuglub independently of Fred. All my definition amounts to is different ways of saying “Fred is Fred” and “zugblub is zugblub.” These are true statements to be sure, but not particularly informative ones. In other words, my definition of zugblub is tautological—an empty truth

There is simply no way of getting around this circularity. Even appealing to God’s nature, as opposed to his commands, gets the theist into the same problem. From the evidence of the Bible itself we can see that God derives his morality from the consequences of his actions, not, it seems, as intrinsically value-laden reflections of his nature (as we shall see).

One of the most fundamental issues with Divine Command Theory is that we don’t seem to know clearly what the commands are. Biblical studies revolve around interpretation of one historically compiled text. Theologians disagree on what certain texts mean and what they are in some way commanding. That there are some 40,000 denominations[iv] of Christianity suggests that there is a denomination for everyone, no matter your moral preference… Is homosexuality morally evil or good (or neither)? Abortion? Divorce? Eating shellfish? Working on the Sabbath? War? Should we look after our environment or should prosperity rule? There is no clarity. Pragmatically speaking, divine command theories are nothing but impotent abstract ideals.

Of course, one could also object that if God commanded us to torture babies for fun it would be good (or take people as slaves…). The theist would counter that God hasn’t done this nor could he, since it is not in his nature. The problem here, though, is that we have no idea what it means to say God’s nature is good apart from what he does. In fact, if God’s nature is good then whatever he does is good. Can he do and say things that would run counter to our conception of his goodness? Based on this divine command theory we discover what it means to say he’s good by what he does. So the Christian response is trumping God’s omnipotence with his supposed omnibenevolence—yet another example of how the characteristics of God are internally incompatible. Could it be, then, that God knows vastly more about the consequences of any act than we do? Theists enjoy appealing to the omniscience of God, pulling the “God moves in mysterious ways” card. We have to entirely trust, supposedly, in God’s providence. Using our God-given reason, which one must assume is reliable since it is given to us by an all-good God (being made in his image, surely we have access to his good nature and reason), we are, however, left with some rather irrational-looking prospects. The evidence of the Old Testament leaves us questioning such faith in divine omniscience: we read of God changing his mind, deceiving, countenancing slavery and rape, committing genocide or mass murder, punishing people for using free will in a way that he presumably foreknew, and so on. In some cases, good people are rewarded on earth while others, children and old people alike, have to wait for heaven for their rewards, while still others are punished on earth, although other truly bad people get away with it and have to await hell, presumably. Such evidence hardly points to an obvious, divinely inspired morality. As A.C. Grayling states, “we are being asked to accept as sound the following reasoning: ‘A loves B and therefore B must do as A requires.’ This is an obvious non sequitur.”[v]

Whole books fail to exhibit any coherent account of divine command theory or theories. All of these theories are highly problematic.[vi]

[i] Philip J. Wogaman, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p.88-89

[ii] Ibid, p.90

[iii] Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990), p.59

[iv] As according to the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in “Status of Global Mission, 2013, in the Context of AD 1800–2025″, http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/statusofglobalmission.pdf (accessed January 11th, 2014)

[v] Grayling, What Is Good? The Search For The Best Way To Live, p. 63

[vi] For example, Richard Carrier, in rebutting theist Matthew Flanagan’s attempt to defend DCT (who attacked Sinnott-Armstrong’s defense of naturalistic ethics), showed that “[a]ny defense of DCT is fallaciously circular and empirically untestable, whereas neither is the case for ethical naturalism.” See Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as We Know Them, Ethical Naturalism Is All There Is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan,” Philo 15.2 (Fall-Winter 2012): 200-11


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