Monday, 27 April 2009

With God, anything is possible

In my post Socrates versus Euthryphro I presented a video by lukeprog of Common Sense Atheism to demonstrate the problems of taking the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. It presented the arguments of a Christian theist, Doug Wilson, who willing accepts the implications this horn: that if God commands, what we consider atrocities, then he is right and we are wrong and that is the end of the matter. They are not atrocities if God commands them. It appears that God can command anything, regardless of whether anyone considers this wrong, they are mistaken and God is right and no reason is required to explain this, nor can God provide a reason. Whilst not in this video, the point of this horn is that if God could provide a reason, then it is not because he has commanded it that makes this right, but rather it is the reason that justifies this command. However if there are such reasons, then this is the basis of morality and not that God commanded them. And this is the first horn, so that God is not above morality.

Now there were three sets of responses to this video. One can look at the comments in the above link at lukeprog's site (note I have not read them). There was also some responses at Tom Gilson's ThinkingChristian site, where I brought this video to the attention of the commenters there. All I will say, with respect to those comments, is that they did not address the key issue, rather they argued that lukeprog has presented some poor references from the Bible in support of his case, for an example see MedicineMan's comment #163 . Now never having been a Christian, it is not my position to comment on these points made by lukeprog, who was a Christian who has seen the light. Still they did not address the substantive point made in the video.

Now as I understand it, both Tom Gilson and his minions, such as MedicineMan, support a modified form of Divine Command theory, where what God commands can only be due to his divine eternal nature and this is and can only be good. They believe that this is not the second horn of the dilemma and there is no repugnant conclusion that can follow from their alternative. This is what I have been discussing in various ways in my last four posts, from which you can tell that as far as I can see their arguments still lead to the second horn and there are still the same repugnant conclusion implications. Even if I were to accept their arguments that they do have a third choice, alternative or horn, the same repugnant conclusions is still the implication from this alternative.

Now Tom Gilson, in a comment to my post where I presented this video, asked me to listen to a podcast as he said:
You have a video, and I've viewed it. I have a podcast. You listen, and then we can talk. How's that sound?
Sound good to me and it is this that I will address in this post. So lets have a look:

The Question Craig addresses
In this podcast, Dr William Laine Craig addresses the question of "why did God command the literal annihilation of innocent women and children...known the atrocities of the old testament?" "Why did God command Joshua and Israelites to wipe the nations of Canaan, how could God command genocide"?

Craig presents a n number of arguments here:

Theory of Ethics - Divine commands based on a divine nature
Craig endorses what he calls "divine command morality" but makes it quite clear that this is based on God's nature. He says things like "our moral duties are constituted by God's command" , "his commands tell us what is right and wrong", "his command becomes your moral duties" whilst also saying that "God has no moral duties", "he acts in accordance to his nature, "his nature is loving and kind" and so on.

Craig uses the example of God ordering Abraham to kill Isaac. Now "if Abraham did it of his own decision, this would be an abomination" . However if God order this, it could not be murder, since it is in accordance with his all-good nature."God cannot command you to murder, in the absence of divine command it would be murder".

As expected Craig does appear to have the same stance, certainly as Gilson, and this explains Gilson's use of this podcast as an endorsement or in support of Gilson's position in our discussions.

God is merciful
As an example of God's mercy and goodness, Craig notes that God sent Jonah to pagans in Ninevah because "god pities them".

A singular event
He argues that this event was singular and exceptional and not typical of God's commands in general which (he says) are all-loving, all-good and so on.

Whilst never being a Christian, I did study the bible and hence the old testament extensively in my youth - in my search for a god and a religion that I never found - and I find this an extraordinary claim. Still I can grant that many stories of atrocities large or small are not necessarily directly due to God's commands, yet even when they are not it is clear that God does not condemn them. However I have no interest in biblical studies and do not wish to pursue this point, I leave that to lukeprog and others if they are interested.I also point interested readers to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible, however I see it does not make a listing of God's command - an interesting category to add given Craig's point here.

(On this lack of a listing of God's command in the old testament, one could also look at the Jewish perspective on this, where the Halakha is an analysis of what are God's Commands in the Torah (the Christian's's Old Testament), at least in terms of obligations over adherents to Rabbinical Judaism , Biblical Judaism (compared to Biblical Christianity) not really existing today, if it ever did (except for the almost non-existent Karaists sect). The Halakha has its own range of problems including a genocidal command "kill all Amalekites". Still Craig and Gilson are not defending Rabbinical Judiasim but Biblical Christianity nor do I know the Jewish position on the Euthyphro dilemma, so this is probably diversionary.)

Biblical Inerrancy
Whilst Craig accepts that others - liberal theologists - can avoid this issue - over such atrocities - by not sticking to Biblical inerrancy - he subscribes to biblical inerrancy. He also argues that as a singular event - whatever one's stance on whether this happened or not - this does not affect any other biblical claims such as the resurrection and so on. He supposes that what if "God could not have issued such a command?". "All that follows is that God did not give such a command but nothing else follows". "It is not an objection to other biblical claims". (This is interesting but I will not pursue this point further here, I certainly do not agree to it.)

Life is a gift from God
Craig claims that "life is a gift from God". Craig argues on the basis of this and his theory of ethics that "He [God] is under no obligation to extend anyone's life", " if God kills anyone he does not violate any moral duty" and "God is under no obligation to not take the lives of anyone".

The Iniquity of the Canaanites
God explain to Abraham that his descendants will sojourn for 400 years in Egypt "because of the iniquity of Canaanites is not yet complete", "they are not corrupted and decadent enough". God waits "until this iniquity becomes so intolerable they are now ripe for judgement". For example they "practised temple prostitution", "worshipped Ball", "practised child sacrifice", "of innocent children", "these are abominable", "so wipe them out"."He does not wrong the adults they were corrupt and ripe for judgement."

Do not assimilate
Whilst the Canaanite adults might all be wicked and ripe for judgement why did God order the execution of the Canaanite children? This needs to be "looked at this in the wider context not to assimilate to pagan practises". These conquests are a "a terrible example over not assimilating" - a lesson the Israelites forgot and why they were punished by being conquered b others many years later. "If you are not obedient.. if become apostates you will be judged. The conquest was a deep object lesson".

So God commanded the Israelites to kill even the children in order not to be tainted with pagan blood.The Land of Israel was promised to the Israelites and no-one else.

Still the children had not done anything wrong, so "how could God be justified in killing them"? "God does not do anything wrong, the destruction of these children is their salvation". "It is God's prerogative...he does not wrong the children."

Morally Sufficient Reasons
All these above constitute the basis for God to command Joshua and the Israelites as he did. God did have "morally sufficient reasons" or "good moral reason". "It is not arbitrary he has a purpose - his command which reflect his own moral nature that are morally sufficient reasons". "A command becomes their moral duty". "God cannot command you to murder, in the absence of divine command it would be murder".

This was no genocide - since following God's commands to murder and rape all men, women and children could not be genocide if God commands it.

Other Points
  • This was "a unique set of historical circumstance not meant the a general rule of behaviour in mankind".
  • A woman who drownwed her children becuase she claimed God commanded it was pyschologically deranged.
  • He was concerned over the effect on brutalising the Isrealite soldiers - but that was typical at the time in the Near Middle East.
So what are to we to make of all this?

1. Craig argues for morally sufficient reasons for God to command Joshua as he commanded. Does this not refute the issue over the second horn, that there are no reasons that God can provide?

No, since all the proffered reasons argued for by Craig are grounded in God's nature none of these are reasons that stand separate to God, God is not beholden to any reason outside himself. These reasons are his justification for his actions, not that he needs to justify himself to anyone. What if we cannot discern such "good moral reason"? The implication is that Craig assumes that God does has them, even if we cannot find out. In this case Craig has been able to discern what they are.

2. If God is all powerful why did it have to end up the way it did?

After all God helped out Ninevah? Why did he let the inquity breed for 400 years in Canaan? God created the Ten Plagues to free the Israelites from Egypt. There are many things God could have done to the Canaanites - send plagues, drought or famine that would killed the most unrighteous and led the others to settle elsewhere, leaving the land unoccupied for the Israelites to live in.

3. Has Craig provided God's morally sufficient reason to justify such commands? Let us see what the justifications for what we would call a genocide but is, supposedly, not when God commands it?
  • Life is a gift from God
  • Racial and/or religious purity
  • God's promises over-rides any other claims (The land was promised to the Israelites)
  • Killing the innocents saves them
  • If others do not follow your God they are wicked and guilty
  • Killing the guilty is justified and is not murder - if commanded by God
  • Killing with extreme prejudice is still not murder - if commanded by God
  • Having sex with the guilty is not rape - if commanded by God
Given question 2 and plenty of alternative possibilities, this why is this not just a post hoc rationalisation of God's commands?

It is dubious for Craig to raise his other three points.

The unique historical circumstances might be rare and not a general rule but there have been other genocides or similar since. This also means that however typical conditions were for the Israelites then many others have all too unforutnely experienced just as bad circumstances as aggressor or victim even in modern times.

The deranged mother is particularly disingenuous; what about Hitler's Final Solution of the Jews and the political Islamacist's attacks on the Twin Tower, the Pentagon, the trains and buses in London and Madrid (and other atrocities) ? In both these cases pretty much the same list of justifications were used. Even a cursory reading of Hitler's ramblings in Mein Kampf lists pretty much all the above bullets (apart from salvation of the innocent children and the gift of life, IIRC).

In the Islamacists case a particular issue I had, after the London bombings, was journalists who interviewed various Islamic leaders who all said - and were never challenged on this -they would not condone the murder of innocents. "Who decides who is innocent or guilty?" was the question never asked. (And now I have learned another question - "who defines what is murder").In reply to the point that Muslims were killed in the Twin Towers, the Islamicist's response was that these Muslims were guilty, in virtue of them choosing to work in the evil and wicked USA and that alone determined their guilt! By determining innocent and murder in their way, they can quite "sincerely" make such a claim as "I do not condone the murder of innocents" knowing that anyone killed is neither innocent nor is it murder since it is commanded by their god - Allah in this case. This is one lesson I have learned from Craig about the logic of theistic ethics.

Now, of course, not all genocides and other atrocities have such justifications. Still for those that such claims apply I would expect Craig will still deny that they were executing God's commands but how are we to tell? Thee is no way objective way to tell, we have to take it on faith from Craig that God did not do so. We have no independent means to tell who is right and how is wrong? After all how many wars have been fought over whose God is right?

So what Craig has created here is the philosophy of evil, the philosophy of genocide. He cannot at the same time try to overcome the Euthyphro dilemma and the problems of the second horn, by arbitrarily assuming that God is good and cannot command evil because of God's eternally good nature, without at the same time creating the means for any other theist - whether Craig supports them or not - using his arguments to supposedly justify and motivate other believers to support their genocidal intentions and actions. Craig's approach not only fails to avoid the repugnant conclusion of divine command morality, it shows that a divine command morality is the morality of evil.

I am both very surprised and truly appalled that Gilson would have thought this a suitable riposte to lukeprog's video. It is actually a far worse endorsement of the repugnant conclusion of the second horn than lukeprog's video! Now I presume that Gilson could not conceive of his God commanding genocide again but if God did it would not be genocide, would it? I also presume that what God commands is compatible with Gilson' conception of what is good, but that subjective stance is woefully insufficient. I do not know what Gilson specifically endorses but I do know that if others criticise a contentious supposed command of God that Gilson supports then Gilson knows they are wrong, so his position is a potential pseudo justification for many morally abhorrent acts done in the name of Christianity, these may not be genocide but the difference is only a matter of degree not kind.

What all this shows to me is the power and implication of the Euthyphro dilemma with respect to the repugnant conclusion Whatever their stance of the resolution of the Euthyphro dilemma, the repugnant conclusion still follows and this implication cannot be assumed or defined away - which is the point that many atheists repeatedly and correctly make. Thanks to Craig, possibly the worlds leading and most effective debater on these issues - a point which should be of major concern to many in its own right - I possibly for the first time ever realise the true depravity and evil of such a theist ethics. With God, anything is possible.


The Barefoot Bum said...

It should be noted that wherever the Bible asserts some moral belief contrary to modern standards, many biblical apologists immediately jump to a cultural relativism defense. For example, MedicineMan's comment:

They made the same mistake that critics who bring this up make. When we say “slavery” today, it’s a term that’s loaded with a lot of cultural and social baggage that didn’t exist in the term translated as “slave” or “servant” in the original text.

In a civilization without social security, welfare programs, or other social constructs, indentured servanthood was a better option than homelessness. If you actually read what the Bible says about the treatment of servants, you won’t see anything compatible with the chattel slavery we identify with the term today.

is a pure argument from cultural relativism.

The Barefoot Bum said...

There's a much simpler argument against Divine Command Theory.

faithlessgod said...

Barefoot Bum

Also indentured servitude is part of the definition of slavery according to the UN. Indeed, according to the UN, 5 million people are in indentured servitude today.

That is my reply to that dodge.

faithlessgod said...

Barefoot Bum

Your post finishes with:
"The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to grasp the nettle: fix on some scripture, and take every moral commandment literally, completely independent of context unless that element of context is explicitly, unequivocally stated in the scripture itself. Any attempt to do otherwise is hypocritical bullshit sophistry."It is exactly those whom I am addressing here. Have you listened to the podcast? It is truly appalling.

Luke said...

I gave my reaction to the exact same podcast, here.

Also, the name of my podcast is "Common Sense Atheism", not "Common Atheism."

faithlessgod said...

Typo Fixed.

Checked your post, no surprise we are on the same page, so to speak.

Tony Hoffman said...


Just wanted to say how much I appreciated your contributions from start to finish on this topic. I think you have done a great job of explaining the flaws in the so-called Christian solution to the ED. How it is that those with a bias for Christianity still accept the "solution," despite it's obvious flaws, is a topic I constantly wonder (and worry) about.