Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, its means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this of course makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal, and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the Biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is  irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Snake Handling Pastor Dies Of Snakebite

At the end of May, Mack Wolford, a pastor of one of the fringe pentecostal churches that handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith (in ‘obedience’ to Mark 16), died of a bite on the thigh sustained during a church meeting. Being of the opinion that the Bible commends faith as the cure for snakebite, he did not seek treatment, and died shortly afterwards. His father had met the same end about 25 years ago.

Such an event is ripe for mockery, and many internet commenters predictably obliged, but this is sad for more reasons than his death.

Firstly, the obvious complaint is that the basis for this sort of behaviour in church is absurdly flimsy. Mark 16 is a later addition to the text (one of three manuscript endings for Mark), and seems to have been a hasty conclusion tacked on later because the ending that seems to be the original is abrupt and open ended. Those of us who hold to the authority of scripture tend to believe that it is the original that has the authority, and so mistakes and additions evident in later manuscripts are not deemed binding on us. Secondly, there are no comparable scriptures elsewhere in the Bible that guarantee miraculous intervention of this sort. Thirdly, the one who wrote this hasty conclusion may have understood himself to be writing a summary of Jesus’ promises to his Apostles, not to the general public, perhaps having in mind the incident in Acts in which St Paul is bitten by an adder and suffers no harm. In short, no one should be basing their well-being exclusively on those dubious words in Mark. Most people accept this, and the rattlesnake movement is accordingly very small.

The bigger sadness is that faith healing is in general a misunderstanding of the way that God works in the world. There is an assumption that certain things are (for want of better terminology) ‘ordinary’ and certain things are ‘spiritual’. Although few would argue this if pressed, they treat the spiritual realm as God’s habitat, but the ordinary realm as if God is largely absent from it. ‘Faith’ is a spiritual substance that gains you access to God’s powerful spiritual realm, from which comes miracle and other supernatural phenomena. The ordinary realm is the place for suffering, struggle, bodily functions, the sciences and so on. It is a realm to be transcended.

This outlooks fails not least because the things that belong to the ‘spiritual’ are chosen arbitrarily. Healing is an obvious candidate, because when ailments get beyond human help, we can only seek God’s supernatural intervention. This leads some, like Wolford, to classify healing as belonging to the realm of faith, and to consign medicine to the realm of unfaith.

But eating, as far as I’m aware, is never so classified. Eating is ‘ordinary’ and I for one have never heard of faith eaters.Yet the differences between food and medicine are not so great.

Firstly, food looks like it should belong to the ordinary, because it generally comes to us by natural means. It grows in the ground, you pick it and eat it. No miracle there. Yet the more we learn about our bodies and our world, the more we discover that healing the body is also a cooperative effort between our natural bodily functions and the things we find lying around. There is no necessary reason that the world should contain substances that cure things, but it does, and this is as much a feature of God’s Creation as food is.

Secondly, healing looks like a spiritual matter because so many Biblical miracles involve healing. Yet there are a number of very significant feeding miracles in the Bible by which God provides food entirely without natural help — such as Manna from heaven, the flour and oil jars that never run out, and the feeding of the 5,000 — yet people never seem to argue that we should pursue faith eating.

In both eating and healing, we trust God by faith to provide, and we are able to receive what He provides with thanksgiving. There is no compelling reason why healing by natural means is less faithful to God than eating by natural means.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding that God is more active in the supernatural than in the natural. The Biblical book of Esther, for example, fails even to mention God in its pages, and the deliverance in the end comes about via a series of non-supernatural coincidences. A major theme in the book is that God is capable of doing His work, even bringing about incredible results, without supernatural demonstrations of power.

So maybe a better test of faith would be to trust God while nothing much is happening, or trusting Him while dealing wisely with the world He created, instead of playing spiritual brinkmanship with God to goad Him into making a miraculous display. You might as well sit down with your mouth open and demand that He feed you.