The night of September 11, 2001, was a night we did not get much sleep in. By 4am September 12 (New Zealand time) our two-week old son and 14 month old daughter had woken us twice already. Frustratingly, I awoke again sometime after 4am to a different noise coming from the lounge; it turned out that our eldest son, then aged 6, was up watching television. I stumbled into the room and told him to go back to bed. As I got back into bed I told Madeleine “It’s OK hon, it was just Christian watching some movie about New York” (I’d seen the Twin Towers on the screen as I switched the TV off). Less than an hour later our sleep was interrupted again, this time by the telephone. Madeleine, awoken for the 4th time that night, angrily moaned “who the hell is ringing at this time? Don’t they know we have a newborn?” It was my Dad.
“Matt” he told me tersely “I am just ringing to say I am alright. I got grounded at Heathrow airport and did not fly into the US as I had intended to this morning and so was not caught up in the drama that’s unfolded.”
“What drama?” I said bewilderedly “why wouldn’t you be ok?”
“Haven’t you heard?” he responded “planes have been high-jacked; there has been a terrorist attack in America – the World Trade Centre has been hit, as has the Pentagon”.
I suddenly was wide awake.
One particularly poignant fact about the events of 9/11 is that the terrorists who carried out the attacks justified their actions by claiming God commanded them to do so. That fact has lead many contemporary commentators to argue that a divine command theory of ethics is indefensible. September 11 is just the most recent example in a series of incidents throughout history such as the Crusades, Inquisition and wars of religion. Divine command ethics is discredited by the fact that people appeal to such commands to justify terrorism.
At first glance this objection is hard to take seriously; the premise is that some people have appealed to divine commands to commit atrocities. The conclusion is that any appeal to divine commands in ethics should be rejected. This conclusion does not follow. To be valid the objector must assume a tacit premise: if people appeal to certain reasons to justify atrocities, then appeals to those reasons are always problematic. This premise is false.
An analogous line of reasoning applies to appeals to right and wrong per se. Take any historical atrocity that people have attempted to justify; in almost every case the justifier will have argued that the action in question was the right action to do, the justifier invariably appeals to the purported rightness of their action. If the tacit premise is true then appeals to right and wrong are always problematic.
Other examples illustrate the same point. The “reign of terror” during the French Revolution was justified by appeals to liberty, equality, fraternity and the rights of humankind; one victim of the guillotine famously remarked, “Oh, liberty, what crimes are committed in your name?” Millions have been slaughtered by appeals to the greater good of society or the liberation of the oppressed classes and it is well known that people have defended wars on the basis of justice and social peace. Should we therefore avoid liberty, equality, opposing oppression, seeking justice, social peace and so on? Obviously not.
The fact that people have attempted to offer justifications for atrocities by appealing to some reason does not entail that any or all appeals to such reasons are problematic. This is a fairly innocuous claim. Take any premise you like – secular or theological – it is true that a person could appeal to this premise in an attempt to justify something but this fact does not mean the premise is problematic. For the appeals to atrocities argument to have bite one needs to show more than just that someone has tried to justify an abhorrent action by appealing to God’s commands; one would have to show that they did so successfully, that God actually commands such practises.
The claim that God commands atrocities appears to be indefensible. We need to remember that we are not talking about the commands of just anyone; we are talking about God, who is typically defined as a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. So, as the terms are defined, the claim that it is possible for God to command people to torture others for fun is true only if it is possible for a morally perfect person to command an atrocious thing. But this is not possible. The very reason that critics cite atrocities in their arguments against God is because they regard these actions as paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever entertain or endorse.
At this point, a second line of argument is mounted; it is claimed that God, in fact, has commanded atrocities. Sceptics have argued passionately that the bible portrays God as issuing commands that are at odds with contemporary modern understandings of morality. They claim that God commands us to punish adultery with death, women to marry their rapists and parents to execute naughty children. They claim that God condoned slavery and that he commanded the killing of non-combatants in “holy wars” against the local Canaanite population.
There is a lot that can be said about these concerns (and I have said a lot about most of them and more on this blog previously). Here I will offer three points.
First, even if the Bible does teach these things, it does not follow that our moral obligations are not, in fact, divine commands. The claim that moral obligations cannot exist independently from the existence of a just and loving God is not the claim that the Bible is an infallible source of information about what God commands. While I do not hold this view, it is possible for someone to argue that the wrongness of an action is based on God’s commands but that we know and recognise what is right and wrong from our conscience and not from a written revelation. Some leading writers on theological ethics have suggested precisely this. What this argument shows then, at best, is that the Bible is not an infallible source of information about Gods commands.
Second, often the interpretation of the Bible undergirding this objection is suspect. In many instances the sceptic fails to appreciate the context and genre of the passages he cites. The sceptic fails to understand the difference between indentured servitude in the ancient Near East and antebellum slavery; they fail to understand that that “cursing their parents” in ancient Near Eastern law does not refer to children being cheeky nor does it refer to children who are minors. They fail to understand that ancient societies consider seduction to be a form of rape. They fail to appreciate that ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts employ highly figurative rhetoric that hyperbolically describes victories in terms of total annihilation of the enemy. They fail to appreciate that ancient Near Eastern legal texts, as noted by Raymond Westbrook, “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.” They miss that, as JJ Finkelstein points out, the commands “were not meant to be complied with literally” but to “serve an admonitory function”; so the commands probably do not command execution for the crimes mentioned.
Sceptics can fail to grasp that claiming the Bible is God’s word does not mean that it did not come to us mediated through the writings of human beings who wrote in a particular time and place using the language, rhetoric and literary conventions of their time and so and frequently they fail to appreciate that the bible is a Canon and that passages need to be read in their broader context i.e. taking into account their place within the whole Bible.
Third, it is worth reflecting on the general method in play here. In each case the sceptic takes a purported divine command and compares it to a moral belief that she takes to be correct. The conclusion she draws is that the purported command is inauthentic. This is of course a possibility; however, there is another possibility that on, at least, some occasions the moral statements these sceptics are relying on are mistaken. Objections like this assume that when a purported moral claim contradicts a theological claim about what God commands it is the latter that should be rejected.
All of this raises an interesting question: why does the sceptic assume that God, if he exists, would never command anything contrary to his own moral beliefs?
The most sustained argument for this method I know of comes from Robert Adams in Finite and Infinite Goods. Adams states that “Our existing moral beliefs are bound in practise, and I think, ought in principle, to be a constraint on our beliefs about what God commands.”
Adams reasons that we can only accept the claim that God’s commands constitute our moral duties if God is understood as perfectly good. If God were evil or morally indifferent then it would be possible for him to command wrongdoing and we cannot have a duty to do wrong. Once this assumption is granted one cannot coherently say that God has commanded just anything. We have some grasp of what goodness is – what counts as right and wrong, what kinds of things a good person does not command. Therefore, God cannot coherently be called good if what he commands is contrary to “our existing moral beliefs”. As Raymond Bradley argues, to do so would be “playing word games which are intellectually dishonest [that deprive] the word ‘holy’ of its ordinary meaning and make it a synonym for ‘evil’.”
In response I will simply note that critics of Adams’ argument have shown that, as it stands, it needs qualifying. It is true we have some grasp of what goodness is but this is mitigated by two factors.
First, our moral judgements are fallible. While God does not command wrongdoing, it is likely that a perfectly good omniscient being would, at some time, command something contrary to what we think is wrong. To say otherwise dogmatically assumes that we are such good judges of morality that God could never disagree with us.
Second, our moral concepts are subject to revision. We change our opinions about the goodness and rightness of certain things without “playing word games which are intellectually dishonest [or depriving] the word ‘holy’ of its ordinary meaning and mak[ing] it a synonym for ‘evil.’” If this were not the case then one could never honestly or rationally change one’s mind on an ethical issue.
Consequently, Adams’ argument does not show we cannot attribute to God commands that are contrary to “our existing moral beliefs”. Rather, as he says elsewhere, we cannot coherently ascribe to “God a set of commands that is too much at variance with the ethical outlook we bring to our ethical thinking.” Elsewhere Adams allows for “the possibility of a conversion in which one’s whole ethical outlook is revolutionized, and reorganized around a new center” but “we can hardly hold open the possibility of anything too closely approaching a revolution in which, so to speak, good and evil would trade places.”
Therefore, Adams does not establish the claim that “our existing moral beliefs must serve as a constraint on our beliefs about what God commands.” It does, on the other hand, suggest that we cannot coherently “accept a theological ethics that ascribes to God a set of commands that is too much at variance with the ethical outlook we bring to our ethical thinking.” Adams argues that we cannot coherently or defensibly accept a theological ethics that, in effect, makes good and evil trade places and which so radically transforms our concept of goodness that it becomes a synonym for what we call evil. Nor could we accept an ethical system that calls our concept of goodness so radically into question that it breaks down.
Certain beliefs such as the claim that “killing, assault, theft and lying are in general wrong and can only be justified if some overriding moral reason applies” or that “without special overriding reason it is wrong to inflict pain and suffering on others or treat them with contempt” are so central to our account of goodness that we cannot coherently accept that a perfectly good being has issued commands that negate them.
Many moral claims are highly controversial and such that people can debate them and change their minds on them and so on. When they do it is implausible to suggest that their concept of goodness was so radically at odds with previous beliefs that “good and evil would trade places” or that there new position it is merely a word game.
Consider, for example, the debate over whether the bombing of Hiroshima was justified because it saved a huge number of lives by ending a war early. While I myself do not share this opinion, I would not say that it is obviously self-contradictory.
Similarly, consider moral debates about capital punishment or euthanasia or affirmative action. While I believe there are defensible and justified answers to these questions, I doubt we can dismiss those views we disagree with as all being conceptually incoherent and so radically at odds with our understanding of good so as to be incomprehensible or merely semantic gymnastics. Even when we disagree with people on these issues, in many instances, we need to take what they say with genuine seriousness and be open to the possibility that they might be right and we may be wrong.
This means one should not be too quick to dismiss a purported divine command merely because it is contrary to contemporary liberal morality. Obviously one cannot coherently attribute anything at all to God and claim that he is good and that Adams is correct to say that we cannot accept a theological ethics that ascribes to God a set of commands that is too much at variance with the ethical outlook we bring to our ethical thinking.
One function of theological reflection is to critique our contemporary mores and an authentic encounter with God’s will is likely to contrast with some of our moral beliefs. It is sheer hubris to suggest God would always agree with us. Is it really impossible for an all knowing, all good being to disagree with us on the seriousness of adultery or the propriety of capital punishment? To say no is to tacitly assume that modern 21st century liberal westerners have made no mistakes and their understanding of morality is infallible and inerrant. Those who make such an assumption have a dogmatically certain faith in contemporary liberal mores. Such attitudes are normally attributed predominantly to religious fundamentalists; I think the irony of this speaks for itself.
So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, is often found to be based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing long before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular and sometimes they are a combination of both. When people care deeply about something sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is no exception.
This post was published as part of the Apologetics Bloggers Alliance collaboration for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Other participating blogs are:
“The Problem of Evil: Whose problem is it? Is it a problem?” (Tilled Soil)
“The Need for Moral Choices and Consequences”(Possible Worlds)
“Ground Zero: Why truth matters in preventing another 9/11-style attack” (Wintery Knight)
“9/11 Memorial: Christianity Gives Authentic Hope In The Face Of Suffering” (Bringing Back the Tao)
Remembering 9-11: Which revelation is true? The need for evaluating religious claims” (Ratio Christi – Ohio State University)
“If God, Why Evil?” (In Defense of the Christian Faith)
“Unsung Lessons from 9/11: ‘Moral Monsters’ & Fear of Death” (Clay Jones)
“9/11 and Religious Pluralism” (Another Ascending Lark)
“The Tiptoes of Tolerance” (Valley Girl Apologist)
“9-11” (Deeper Waters)
“Do all roads (and flights) lead to God?” (Sarcastic Xtian)
“On September 11, 2001, harmless things became fearful” (J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”)
“Remembering 9/11: A Young Californian’s Perspective” (Take Two Blog)
“The Two Ground Zeros” (Reasons for God)
“Suffering and the Cross of Christ” (Hieropraxis)
“America after 9 11: Is Religion Evil?” (Apologetics Guy)
“Resources on the Problem of Evil” (Apologetics 315)
“Atheism, Evil, and Ultimate Justice” (Faithful Thinkers)
“9/11: ‘Full Cognitive Meltdown” and its Fallout” (Thinking Christian)
“Where was God on 9/11?” (Cold and Lonely Truth)
“The Three Faces of Evil and A Christian Response” (The Real Issue)
“Christianity and 9/11: Guilt by Association?” (The POINT)
“Did God Allow the Attacks on 9/11 for a ‘Greater Good?'” (The Gospel According to Erik)
“Where was God on 9-11?” (Neil Mammen’s Blog)
“From Ground Zero to Ten Years Later–September 11, 2001” (Sententia)
“9-11 Remembered” (Answering Muslims)
“On the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11” (Mirror of Justice)