But when secular morality is abandoned, and religious appeals to what God wants, or what God ordains, this opens the gates wide to the worst sort of moral relativism. It enables any despot to sanction any form of inhumanity by claiming that their god supports it.
For this reason, it is worth asking whether Ken’s claim is true, or at best, whether the arguments he gives for this claim are sound. I contend that they are not. Ken’s main argument for his thesis is found in the following quote,
This seems crazy to most people but is not at all unusual. Consider the civil rights struggles in the USA. Christian beliefs were used to justify both segregation and the opposition to it. The same in South Africa. Most members of the Dutch reform Church thought apartheid was sanctified by God, whereas many anti-apartheid activists opposed apartheid on religious grounds. Consider slavery. Consider just about any struggle over human rights in human history and we can see examples of a god being used to justify both opposition to, and support of, human rights.
This suggests to me that religion does allow for an extreme form of moral relativism. Truly anything can be justified by claiming support from your god.
First, if Ken’s argument is sound then he has offered, not just an argument against theism, but an argument against the existence of morality itself. Consider the structure of his argument; he notes that one group of theists oppose P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that P has the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Ken then notes that another group of theists oppose not-P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that not-P has the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Ken infers from these examples that belief in God entails “an extreme form of moral relativism” and that it follows from this that “with God anything can be permitted.”
The problem is that an exactly analogous line of argument applies to the existence of right and wrong per se whether it has a theistic grounding or not. Consider any paradigmatic moral debate on an issue. Whether it is capital punishment, affirmative action, war or whatever, one group of believers in the existence of right and wrong will oppose P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that P has the property of being wrong. Another group who also believe in right and wrong will oppose not-P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that not-P has the property of being wrong. Hence, if Ken’s argument is valid then it must be the case that the existence of right and wrong entails “extreme moral relativism,” and, that if right and wrong exist then anything can be permitted.
So we have, then, two arguments, Ken’s own argument that God’s existence entails extreme moral relativism and an analogous argument that the existence of right and wrong entails extreme moral relativism. Both have true premises. Ken’s premise is that some believers in God disagree over whether to support a given action. The analogous argument has as its premise the contention that people who believe in the existence of right and wrong sometimes disagree over whether to support a given action.
Given this, it follows that either both arguments are sound or neither one of them is. Ken must either embrace extreme moral relativism and the kind of nihilistic tendencies he criticises “religion” for having or he must retract his argument.
The second line response I will make to Ken’s argument is to note that it clearly is not a valid argument at all. In fact, it conceals a subtle fallacy. Ken notes that,
 Different religious believers appeal to God to justify mutually incompatible practises.
 Anything can be justified by appealing to God.
[1a] He or she actually does show that the position is actually justified by appealing to this belief;
[1b] That he or she attempts to show that the position is justified by appealing to this belief.
Ken could mean [1a]. If he does mean this his argument is unsound. This is because the examples he shows do not substantiate this premise, they do not support the claim that theists have actually justified mutually incompatible positions with appeals to God.
Noting that theists have disagreed over what policy is in accord with the will of God does not show that all parties to the dispute have actually justified their claim that these policies are in fact in accord with God’s will. Merely noting the existence of an argument does not demonstrate that the argument is sound.
Perhaps then Ken means [1b], he is simply noting that different theists have attempted to justify their beliefs by appealing to God. This claim certainly is supported by the evidence he cites; however, the problem is that the conclusion Ken draws does not follow.
The fact that people have attempted to offer justifications for mutually inconsistent positions does not entail that all these positions can in fact be justified. It only tells us that people have attempted to justify mutually incompatible positions by appealing to God.
I grant that people can use theological premises in an attempt to justify different and inconsistent positions but this is a fairly innocuous claim. Take any premise you like, secular or theological, it is true that a person could to appeal to this premise in an attempt to justify something. Such a person’s argument may be stupid, unsound or unsuccessful but that does not mean that it is impossible for that person to try to mount it. I am sure Ken would agree that people offer stupid arguments for things all the time.
Consider Darwinian Evolution. People can and have appealed to this theory to justify Marxism, Nazism, racism, colonialism, atheism, scepticism, ethical nihilism, infanticide and a whole host of other positions, many of which are mutually incompatible. Of course, the fact people have tried to use Darwinism for this purpose does not, in and of itself, entail that Darwinism actually justifies any of these theories. It only tells us that some people appealed to it to try to show this.
Ken, I am sure, would object to being told that his beliefs commit him to social Darwinist views of race relations purely because someone once appealed to Darwinism in the past to justify such claims. Similarly, he would object if I suggested that the mere existence of these arguments by others in the past commits him to extreme relativism and the view that any action, including rape and torturing of little children, could be justified.
Ken would rightly point out that the issue is not whether Darwinian arguments have been offered for all sorts of crazy positions; rather, it is whether these arguments are correct. Here I would simply note that what is good for the goose is equally good for the gander.
Divine Commands and Intuitions: A Response to Ken Perrott
Divine Command Theory