Sunday, February 18, 2007

Does the Theist Have a Moral Advantage Over the Atheist?

One of the most common comments on atheism is people expressing confusion or consternation about the possibility of an atheist's being moral. It is usually thought that if one thinks there is no God, then there is nothing to restrain you from doing whatever sort of horrible acts you might want to do--there's no one who is going to punish you in the end. This objection to atheism has been dealt with thoroughly and clearly again and again. See Kai Nielsen, Michael Martin, Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer, and Sam Harris, to name a few.

But here's another important consideration: The view that morality emanates from God is called Divine Command Theory. The criticism of atheism above presumes that on our own, we cannot determine what is right or wrong--only God can determine that, so we must obey his commandments.

Suppose you can figure out exactly what things God has determined to be good and which ones are evil. That alone is a daunting task given that so many billions of people on the planet can't seem to come to any kind of consensus about what that is. And typically people cherry pick the commandments that appeal to them while ignoring all the ones that are not so charming. For example, people like to cite the 10 Commandments as a obvious, clear statement of morality. "Honoring your father and mother," sounds like a great idea. The punishment for failing to obey this commandment is to be put to death. That's also the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain, and for coveting your neighbor's goods, and all the other commandments. So, if we were to do what the Bible commands us to do, we need to put every person who has ever disrespected their father or mother, or who has slipped and said, "God dammit," to death.

First, it's clear that people who think that the Bible contains clear, obvious moral commandments probably aren't serious, or haven't actually read it, or they are just picking the commandments that suit them. Second, I don't care if God commanded it, executing someone for being disrespectful or using the word "God," in a rude way is positively barbaric, not the pinnacle of moral virtue.

Back to the original problem. Suppose we can figure out what God's commandments are (we can't seem to.) Now the most that any person who considers the texts is that the book says that God commanded them. It doesn't follow that God did command them, or that there is a God, or that we should do everything that a book says we should because it insists that God issued the commandments. There are thousands of religious documents all over the world that contain stories about spiritual leaders, some even claiming to be God, that issue commandments that you are currently ignoring. You don't think that the commandments of Zoroastrianism are binding, do you?

Now even if God said it and the book you choose to adhere to accurately relays that commandment, it doesn't follow from that alone that one should do it or even that it is good. You have to make your own moral choice, on criteria of your choosing, about whether or not it is a good thing to follow that commandment. You have to figure out which features of the commandment are relevant to deciding whether or not it is a good commandment to follow, one that you ought to obey. But the choice, the moral responsibility for deciding to act according to those commandments instead of some others still falls squarely on your shoulders, not God's. You have to figure out, on the basis of other facts than just that God commanded it, that doing X is a good thing. The second order choice, "Is it a good thing or a bad thing to do what God commands?" is still entirely up to you. That is, even if there is a God (there isn't) who gives us clear commands (he doesn't), acting on them is my choice. And it is my fault if I pick the wrong commandments, and it is to my credit if I choose the right ones. Complete, 100% moral responsibility falls entirely on the person who makes the choice, in every case. People are fond of saying that morality can only come from God and that only God is capable of recognizing what is right and wrong. But deciding to do what you take God to command is itself a moral choice that only you can decide. The theist might respond, "But I am not deciding what is right or wrong. Only God can do that. I just do what God commands." What that means is that you have made the decision to do what God commands instead of something else, and that decision it unavoidably moral because the rule you are deciding to follow are commandments about what is moral.

Notice that when someone says that they bombed the abortion clinic because God told them to do it, or to fly planes into a building, we don't immediately let them off the hook simply because they claim to have divine authorization. We expect them and everyone else to make moral choices about which principles deserve to be followed, whether you think they came from God or not. It is never enough to foist the moral responsibility for one's actions onto God, because you cannot divest yourself of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility cannot be separate from any human free choice.

So the theist who thinks that the atheist is amoral and directionless just hasn't reflected on the basic moral challenge for all of humanity. What all of do is entirely up to us. If you decide that since God commands X, Y, and Z, you ought to do them, you aren't absolved or moral responsibility for those acts. You decided that doing what God commands is good, and you deciding that doing X, Y, and Z instead of something else was a good thing. So the atheist and the theist are in the same boat for figuring out which principles are morally acceptable ones to live by and why.

No comments: