Atheists, as well as some theological liberals, like to ask this question to make Christians squirm. It’s intended to create a dilemma. If the Christian says “No,” then the atheist will gleefully exclaim, “So why do you believe those Old Testament commands about killing”? But if the Christian says “Yes,” then the atheist will gleefully exclaim, “That just goes to show how dangerous religion is. It will make you do anything. Suspend your normal moral inhibitions.”
So how should a Christian answer this question?
i) We should begin by pointing out that it’s a trick question. It’s intended to trap the Christian into giving the wrong answer however he responds. But the question is deceptively simple.
ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, you answered in the affirmative. Does that mean religion is dangerous? No. It’s not religion that makes you kill someone, but the hypothetical.
That’s the thing about hypothetical questions. Because it’s a hypothetical situation, we can make it do exactly what we want it to do. We can frame a hypothetical to yield any desired result. The answer is inescapable because the hypothetical artificially narrows your range of options. Given those options, you can only give one or two answers. But why is that a given?
If your answer is morally unacceptable, blame the hypothetical, not religion. That’s just an artifact of the hypothetical. The shocking consequences isn’t the result of religion, but the hypothetical framework.
iii) Apropos (ii), it’s easy to dream up hypotheticals that generate moral dilemmas. Ethicists like to do that:
That doesn’t single out religion. It’s easy to dream up non-religious moral dilemmas. If religious moral dilemmas discredit religion, do non-religious moral dilemmas discredit secularism?
iv) However, the atheist might press the point. He might say this isn’t just hypothetical. He might say there really are people who think God told them to kill someone.
But that’s ambiguous. Does the atheist mean there are people who hear voices telling them to commit murder? That may well be true. But in that event, we have to recast the question:
“If you were psychotic, and you heard a voice telling you to kill somebody, would you do it?”
I suppose the answer would be “yes.” So what? Don’t blame religion. Blame schizophrenia.
After all, the atheist doesn’t think God is really telling anyone to commit murder, since the atheist doesn’t believe in God in the first place. So even if the psychotic thought he was following orders from God, the atheist doesn’t think he was following orders from God, even if the psychotic is convinced God was speaking to him.
So why would religion be to blame, rather than mental illness? You don’t have to be religious to be criminally insane. A psychotic atheist can hear voices too.
v) Let’s recast the question in atheistic terms. Suppose the atheist is a physicalist. Indeed, many atheists subscribe to physicalism. And even secular dualists are usually grudging dualists. They’d rather be physicalists.
But in that case, the atheist is really asking: “If your brain told you to kill someone, would you do it?”
Well, within the framework of physicalism, the answer would be “yes.” Given physicalism, you have no choice but to obey whatever your brain tells you to do. That’s because you are your brain. There’s no you, over and above your brain; there’s no mind, distinct from your brain, to censor what your brain is telling you to do.
You’re in no position to evaluate what you’re brain is telling you is real. For you rely on your brain to tell you what’s real.
Suppose a Christian thinks he hears God telling him to kill someone. According to physicalism, that just means his brain is telling him to kill somebody. Is religion to blame, or his brain?
In fact, if physicalism is true, then everybody who commits a heinous crime was doing so because his brain told him to do it. If an atheist commits murder, his brain told him to commit murder. Does that prove how dangerous atheism is? Does that just prove how dangerous physicalism is?
vi) If someone says they hear voices telling him to commit murder, a common Christian explanation is demonic possession. It’s not the Holy Spirit, but evil spirits, telling him to do that.
Of course, Christians can also believe in psychotic behavior. Maybe he hears voices because he has brain cancer.
An atheist might counter, “But what if you were sure that God was telling you to kill someone–even though we know that’s delusive”?
But in that case, the hypothetical stipulates that you can’t help yourself. You don’t know any better. You lack control. In that situation, aren’t you in a condition of diminished responsibility?
vi) The atheist might say this isn’t just hypothetical, for we have divine commands to kill people in the Bible. Take Abraham and Isaac.
But the atheist challenge is ambiguous. If God really does command you to kill someone, then you should obey God’s command. But if God really isn’t commanding you to kill someone, then you shouldn’t. So what does the ostensible dilemma amount to?
After all, there are atheists who believe in moral obligations to kill people. There are secular utilitarians who think that we should take one innocent life to save ten innocent lives. Their value system requires them to do that. Yet utilitarianism is a respectable position in secular ethics.
vi) Moreover, most Christians aren’t voluntarists. We don’t think God would command just anything for the heck of it. That’s a problem with this hypothetical questions, viz., “What if God commanded you to blow up a bus full of school children.”
We have no reason to think God would command that. And if he really wanted them dead, he could do it himself.