Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Must purported revelation pass a moral test?

I'm going to comment on this essay:

Morriston, W. (2013) The Problem of Apparently Morally Abhorrent Divine Commands, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (eds J. P. McBrayer and D. Howard-Snyder), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK.,ch10

Morriston is an atheist.

If God is morally perfect, there must be many things that could not be commanded by him, and it might seem to be quite easy to name some of them. William Lane Craig, for example, says that it is absolutely impossible for God to command rape (Craig et al. 2009, 172) or to command us to eat our children (Craig and Antony 2008). David Baggett and Jerry Walls say that it would be impossible for God to command us to “rape and pillage hapless peasants in a rural village of Africa” (Baggett and Walls 2011, 134).1

“Absolutely impossible” may somewhat overstate the case. Circumstances matter, and an imaginative philosopher might perhaps conjure up a world in which God is morally justified in commanding someone to do these things. But even if such a world were genuinely possible, it would bear little resemblance to the actual world. As things actually are, commands like these do not pass moral muster and cannot reasonably be attributed to God. As Robert Adams rightly says, “purported messages from God” must be tested for “coherence with ethical judgments formed in the best ways available to us” (Adams 1999, 284). If someone were to cite a “message from God” as justification for rape or pillage or eating children, we would rightly conclude that he was a charlatan or a madman.

Should this moral test be applied even to biblical reports of divine commands?2 This is a serious issue, because the biblical record contains a number of divine commands that are – on the face of it – every bit as morally objectionable as those mentioned in the first paragraph. Among the most worrisome passages are those in which God is represented as mandating the extermination of a large number of people.

Adams (1999, 284) quotes with approval the words of Immanuel Kant: “Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down from (visible) heaven.’” On the other hand, Adams also says this: “The command addressed to Abraham in Genesis 22 should not be rejected simply because it challenges prevailing values. . . . Religion would be not only safer than it is, but also less interesting and less rich as a resource for moral and spiritual growth, if it did not hold the potentiality for profound challenges to current moral opinion” (Adams 1999, 285). Despite this qualification, one is left with the strong impression that Adams does not believe that God has ever commanded anyone to sacrifice a human life.

These biblical justifications raise new and troubling questions. Are the reasons stated in the terror texts worthy of a perfectly good and loving God? Would commanding the Israelites to kill large numbers of people be a morally acceptable way to prevent them from adopting “abhorrent” religious practices? Would it be morally acceptable to punish the Amalekites of Samuel’s day for what a previous generation of Amalekites had done to a previous generation of Israelites?

At the very least, those who deny that there are serious moral errors in the Bible must show that it is not unreasonable to believe that the biblical rationale for each problematic command is consistent with God’s perfect goodness. In making this demand, we are not asking anyone to read the mind of God. But we are asking that everyone read what the terror texts say about God’s actions and about the intentions behind them, and consider whether it is plausible to suppose that they accurately represent the actions and intentions of a God who is perfectly loving and just.

Imagine a pastor who is concerned about a local atheist organization that has lured some young people away from his church. He prays for divine guidance, and comes to believe that God wants his church to be the instrument of divine justice. Fresh from this “discovery,” he tells his congregants that God has a special mission for them: they are to stop this spiritual infection in its tracks by killing those atheists. Many church members are skeptical, but the Pastor reassures them by pointing out that “our life comes as a temporary gift from God,” that God has a right “to take it back when he chooses,” and that God also a right to commission someone else “take it back for him.”

Such a high degree of skepticism about what God might command is surely excessive. The immoral content of the pastor’s “revelation” is a perfectly good reason to reject it. This reason is, of course, defeasible, but in the absence of overriding evidence confirming the veridicality of the pastor’s “message from God,” we should regard it as a matter for the police.21

I suggest that we should approach the terror texts in the Bible in somewhat the same way. By our best lights, they are morally subpar, and this gives us a strong prima facie reason for believing that they do not accurately depict the commands of a good and loving God. This reason is defeasible, but unless overriding reasons for accepting the terror texts can be produced, they should be rejected.

This raises a number of issues:

i) Morriston's position is paradoxical. On the one hand, Christians have reason to believe that humans sometimes have reliable moral intuitions, although our moral intuitions are fallible. On the other hand, a consistent atheist ought to be, at minimum, a moral skeptic. According to naturalism, our moral opinions are hardwired and/or socially conditioned. But there's no presumption that socially conditioned mores are objectively right or wrong. If, moreover, our moral instincts were programmed into us by a mindless, amoral natural process, then there's no reason to think they correspond to objective moral norms. Indeed, it's hard to fathom how there can even be objective moral norms, given those background conditions. 

So even if there could be a moral criterion for assessing particular religious claimants or competing religious claimants, that could never rule out religion in general, for moral realism is parasitic on theism. 

ii) Since, moreover, it's demonstrable that our moral sensibilities are often arbitrary, given the fact that different cultures frequently have different social mores, it follows, even from a Christian standpoint, that we need to make allowance for the very live possibility that what we take to be moral intuitions or moral certainties simply echo our social conditioning, and if we were raised at a different time or place, our moral sensibilities might be very different. 

Although Christians shouldn't be wholesale moral skeptics, unlike atheists, a degree of skepticism regarding our prereflective moral sensibilities is warranted and even necessary. Our moral sensibilities need revelatory correction or confirmation.   

iii) It's possible to confirm or disconfirm a religious claimant on grounds other than morality. Having confirmed a religious claimant on grounds other than morality, you can use that as a benchmark or moral criterion to evaluate another religious claimant. But for reasons I've given, I seriously doubt you can do that from scratch. I doubt you can jump straight into a moral test. I think we lack independent access to consistently reliable moral intuitions. What we're pleased to call moral intuition is very hit-n-miss.   

Indeed, critics who object to OT ethics ironically illustrate that very point. OT writers don't share their outlook. OT writers don't think the allegedly "abhorrent" commands are derogatory to God's goodness. So what's the standard of comparison to referee competing moral opinions?

iv) Abraham's situation is different from a messenger. God spoke directly to Abraham. That's disanalogous to a "purported message" from God, which obliges second parties who were not the immediate recipients of the purported message. It's one thing for me to obey a divine command if I hear it direct from God–quite another to obey a reported divine command. 

v) In the case of Pentateuchal injunctions, although the divine commands were mediated through a messenger, the Israelites had overwhelming miraculous evidence that God spoke to and through Moses. 


  1. William Lane Craig addressed a similar objection in this Q&A:

    If ISIS’s God Were Real, Would I Be Obliged to Follow Him?

    Craig's main appeal is to perfect being theology. I think that has some merit, but isn't enough because such and appeal could potentially be used to argue against unconditional election, preterition and/or reprobation.

    I agree with you Steve that there is more than just the moral test.

  2. Western philosophy and philosophers like Morriston have been influenced by Judeo-Christian ethics, morality, philosophy and theology; and there has been moral and philosophical [including epistemological] progress that has resulted in their influence. So we shouldn't place on folks like Abraham moral and philosophical standards we've arrived at. We have benefited from progressive revelation in ways people in earlier Ages haven't.

    Also, in the progress of revelation in Christianity [and the NT], we are specifically taught that in the Christian Age the covenant people of God don't have the power of the sword to exact God's judgement on people other than excommunication. We are to wait on the Lord to mete out justice in the future eschaton. (cf. Rom. 13:1-7; Rom. 12:19ff.; Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:1-5). So, any professing Christian or Christian group that claims God told them via revelation to murder or exact capital punishment is not telling the truth (though, he/they might think so on account of delusion, deception, or what have you).

    We are also taught in the NT that the final sacrifice has been provided in Christ. So, no Christian can ever legitimately claim God has commanded him to sacrifice someone. Moreover, God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son served 3 purposes.

    1. to affirm God as the source and Lord of life who has the right to give and take it away.

    2. to demonstrate for all time and to all people that Abraham was just as devoted to his God as the pagans were to their gods who also required the ultimate sacrifice of sacrificing their children to them.

    3. to imply that God rejects human sacrifice, since God actually stopped Abraham. Something which is more explicitly spelled out in the rest of the Old Testament. For example, those places in the OT where God says it never entered in His mind that people should actually sacrifice their children to false gods or to Himself (Jer. 19:5 and other passages).