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Is belief in God essential for Morality? Why Crime Statistics don’t answer this question

November 18th, 2014 by Matt

Readers of this blog will note that, of late, I have been focusing a lot in my thinking, writing and research on questions of the relationship between religion and morality. One particular frustration I encounter in this topic is the, unfortunately common, tendency for writers and researchers to conflate separate questions and subsequently give answers to the wrong questions thinking they have answered the right ones.

A good example is article which was sent to me via e-mail recently entitled “The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe.” The article comments on a recent survey which found that the majority of people in certain parts of the world, including the United States of America, believe that belief in God is essential for morality. The author considers this a “destructive myth”. His rebuttal involves two premises: (a) he interprets the survey’s results to mean that the majority of people believe you cannot live a morally good life unless you believe in God; (b) he aims to refute this by appealing to some unsourced crime statistics that suggest atheists do not commit disproportionately more crimes than theists.

o-PRISONER-READING-facebookI think his reasoning on both points is mistaken, before getting into why, I note that this article proposes to be about whether belief in God is essential to morality; it is not about the related, though separate, question of whether the existence of morality depends on the existence of God.

Turning to the first premise (a), the article opens with:

“Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: Is belief in God essential to morality? While clear majorities say it is necessary, the U.S. continues to be an outlier. In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report.”

This is confused. The author states the question asked was: “Is belief in God essential to morality?” The author then interprets those answering in the affirmative as saying “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person.” This does not follow from the affirmative answer. The question asked was whether belief in God is essential to the institution of morality itself; such a question is asking whether the institution needs this belief. The question did not ask what attributes were necessary to be a moral person.

Not only are these separate issues, they are logically distinct. [Read more →]

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The Arbitrariness Objection (once more): A brief reply to Jason Thibodeau

November 7th, 2014 by Matt

Jason ThibodeauJason Thibodeau over at The Secular Outpost has written a thoughtful discussion and response to the critique I made of Walter Sinnott Armstrong’s arbitrariness objection in my article, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism: A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.”

Jason suggests that when you disambiguate the premises of Armstrong’s argument, it is formulated as follows:

(1) Either: (i) there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape; or, (ii) there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape.

(2) If there is no reason, r, why God prohibits rape, then God’s commands are arbitrary.

(3’’) If there is a reason, r, why God prohibits rape then r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape.

(4’’) If r is what constitutes the wrongness of rape then God’s commands are explanatorily superfluous.

The word “constitute” in premises (3”) and (4”) is a technical term for a  particular  kind of explanatory relationship. Mark Murphy explains, “The sense of explanation at stake is that of informative identification, as we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.”[1]

In my paper, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism“, I argued that  (4’’) was false; (4’’) relies on a particular principle:

PI: If A is constituted by B, and someone has reasons, r, for bringing about B, then A is constituted by r.

However, PI is false. Consider a counter-example drawn from Stephen Sullivan. Consider Giorgio who is bachelor. Giorgio is unmarried because he prefers to live alone. Given that the property of being a bachelor is constituted by the property of being an unmarried man, and Giorgio’s love of living alone provides a reason for him to be an unmarried man, PI entails that the property of being an unmarried man is constituted by the property of preferring to live alone, but this is clearly false. Giorgio’s preference for living alone provides him with a reason for being a bachelor, in the sense that it is what motivates him to continue to be one, but his preferences do not constitute him being a bachelor.[2] There are, after all, many people who are bachelors who would prefer not to live alone.

Thibodeau  agrees that this counter example refutes PI, he  suggests a repair: [Read more →]

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On Judging Books by their Covers: A Fisk of the Secularist Outpost’s book review of Did God Really Command Genocide?

November 4th, 2014 by Madeleine

You should not judge a book by its cover, unless you are a secularist… then it is okay.

In a post entitled “Books Like This Should be a Warning Signal to Inerrantists“, published on 26 September 2014, The Secular Outpost’s Jeffery Jay Lowder refers to Paul Copan and this blog’s Matthew Flannagan’s, then forthcoming, book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.

crystal ballAfter making an acknowledged assumption as to whom authored the publisher’s description, Lowder then moves to confidently asserting that his assumption was correct, and leaps from there to critiquing the then-not-yet-published-or-available to-Lowder-to-actually-read content of the book. Yes folks, it is a live example of judging a book, quite literally, by its cover.

Lowder wrote: [note: that bold, underlined, italics are my emphasis, any other emphasis is original. My comments are in italics]

“So they admit that the relevant passages are among “the most confusing and uncomfortable passages of Scripture,” passages which make even hardened inerrantists like Copan and Flannagan “squeamish.”

This is the bit wrongly attributed to Paul and Matt that I referred to above.

“But, being the faithful believers that they are, Copan and Flannagan will argue that, yes, a “good, kind, and loving deity” would command (and, in fact, has commanded) “the wholesale slaughter of nations.””

Apparently Lowder is a clairvoyant secularist. Either that or he is really good at cover interpretation.

“How will they reconcile God’s goodness, kindness, and love with genocide? The book’s subtitle suggests that they will argue that “justice” is the answer.”


“The fundamental problem with books like this is that they fly in the face of what seems obvious to everyone else who doesn’t already hold the a priori belief that everything the Bible says must be true,”

Ah, so not being a Christian is what gives secularists the ability to boldly state the “obvious” about the content of books they have only had access to the covers of. I thought that maybe I just lacked the confidence to make such bold assertions about the content of books I have not read. (…Well, that, and the fact that, unlike Lowder, I do have access to the manuscript by virtue of my sleeping with one of the authors [whom I am married to] and I know for a fact that this is *not* actually what Paul and Matt argue. Small details, I know.)

“just because the Bible says it.””

That is actually not what inerrantists of Matt and Paul’s ilk believe;  this is actually a strawman (small detail, again, I know).

To paraphrase something Nick Trakakis wrote in another context, “Defenses of genocidal behavior by the OT god turn a blind eye to what seem clear and obvious to everyone else — that such behavior makes a mockery out of what any person would consider morally justifiable behavior.””

This would be a good ending if the book actually did defend “genocidal behavior by the OT god.” Again, small detail.

Did God Really Command Genocide?Advice to Lowder: try, I don’t know, reading it. It got released today so you finally can. Did God Really Command Genocide? is now available from the following book providers:

Baker Books
Book Depository

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Out Now: Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan

November 4th, 2014 by Madeleine

Did God Really Command Genocide?Well done Matt and Paul. :)

Out now!

Get your copy today of Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, published by Baker Books.

More here.

Buy from Baker Books
Buy on Amazon in paperback
Buy for your Kindle
Buy from Book Depository

(The New Zealand store launch is not until 31 January 2015 but Book Depository do free international posting.)

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“Do as I say, not as I do.” Is God a cosmic hypocrite?

October 23rd, 2014 by Matt

In, my article “Tooley Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil”, I argued that Tooley’s specifically deontological version of the argument from evil fails. To summarise very briefly, Tooley’s version of the argument assumes that God has moral obligations. However, according to a fairly mainstream theistic position on the relationship between God and morality, the wrongness of an action consists in its being forbidden by God. Given that God does not issue commands to himself, it follows that he has no obligations. Tooley’s argument, therefore, contrary to his own protestation, relies on controversial substantive moral assumptions, which many theists reject.

hypocrisyIn this post I want to respond to two objections to this line of argument. The first contends my position is contradictory or incoherent; one cannot coherently deny that God is subject to the commands he issues to human beings. The second contends my argument makes God a cosmic hypocrite. Human morality consists of God saying to us, “do as I say not as I do”.

Let us look first at the accusation of incoherence.  Central to theism is the notion that God is essentially good. In my paper I set this out in terms of God possessing certain character traits: God is loving, just, impartial, omniscient, and so on. God’s possession of these traits, however, limits the kind of commands one can coherently attribute to God. Specifically, his commands must express these traits in some sense, or in the very least not contradict them. To say God is just, for example, and impartial and loving but then attribute to him commands that are unjust, hateful and partial would be incoherent.

So far so good, here is the alleged problem. If God’s commands express (or are consistent with) his essential character, then how can it be consistent with his character to not act in accord with those same commands? If God commands us to refrain from performing some action then it would be a contradiction of his character if he himself does not refrain from that action.

This objection contains a false premise. It assumes that if one person’s commands to another person reflects certain character traits then consistency with those character traits means the first person must, themselves, follow that command. This is false. Consider an example. A loving parent sets their 9 year old daughter a bedtime of 8:30 pm. This parent’s command reflects their loving character, it does not follow, however, that being loving requires that the parent herself must go to bed at 8:30 pm. Or consider an experienced surgeon. Out of concern for his patients he prohibits inexperienced junior surgeons from performing certain operations without supervision. This does not mean his concern leads him to refrain from doing this surgery himself.

This also provides an answer to the second objection that human morality consists of God saying “do as I say, not as I do”. While the sarcastic slogan may have an effective use in certain contexts to show up a person’s hypocrisy, the idea that you cannot legitimately counsel or command another to not do something that you, yourself, do is false. Parents tell children to go to bed at 9:00 pm without themselves being morally required to go to bed at 9:00 pm. Governments prohibit private citizens from punishing people for crimes yet that does not entail governments cannot punish crime. Stunt-men warn those who watch their stunts to “not try this at home”. Husbands object to other men attempting to make love to their wives, it does not follow they themselves do not make love to their wives, and so on. The point is that in many contexts the difference between people’s knowledge, character, abilities, relationship, and authority mean it is perfectly appropriate for one to tell the other to do something that she herself would not do.

It does not follow, therefore, from the fact that a God commands us to refrain from a certain action, that that God himself could never do that action.

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Jerry Coyne on Deception and the Omission of Facts

October 21st, 2014 by Matt

In 2011 I wrote a criticism of Jerry Coyne’s USA Today article, “As  atheists know, you can be good without God.” My critique, “When Scientists make bad Ethicists,” attracted some attention motivating Coyne to write a response. I wrote a following up piece the next year, “Jerry Coyne on God and Morality Revisited,” my conclusions were not flattering. I wrote:

“Nothing in Coyne’s follow up leads me to revisit my initial conclusion. Misrepresenting people’s views, calling people names, quoting from articles out of context, denigrating others’ scholarly qualifications and confidently asserting a position whilst reasoning in a circle, and ignoring objections, are not the same as actually addressing them.  I doubt such sophistry would pass muster in the scientific community when people write on scientific topics, and it does not pass muster when scientists comment on theology or philosophy.”

Jerry CoyneRecently I discovered Coyne’s latest riposte on the issue of divine commands: “William Lane Craig answers a distressed reader: ‘If ISIS’s god were mine, should I do what he says?’”  which  has   subsequently  been posted on Little, it seems, has changed. Coyne begins by sarcastically referring to William Lane Craig as a “sophisticated theologian” and commending him for addressing a question “not often taken up by theologians”. I am not sure which “sophisticated theologians” Coyne has read because, contrary to what he says, almost every major monograph on divine command theory (“DCT”) in the last thirty years has discussed the problem he refers to in his post, as do most articles on the subject. Undeterred by these facts, or perhaps unaware of them, Coyne suggests in closing that “sophisticated theologians” like Craig who defend DCT are like real estate salesman in Florida.

Apart from sarcastic names and insinuations of dishonesty Coyne’s central argument purports to highlight an inconsistency in Craig’s divine command theory. The inconsistency relates to a distinction Craig (and others like Baggett and Walls) draw between a voluntaristic and a non voluntaristic DCT. According to Craig’s account of a voluntaristic DCT ,“God’s commands are based upon His free will alone”; God “arbitrarily chooses” what we are required to do.”[1] On a non-voluntaristic  account, “Our duties are determined by the commands, of a just and loving God. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so forth, and His commandments are reflections of His own character”;[2] because he has these character traits, essentially, “it is logically impossible for Him to issue certain sorts of commands”.[3]

I think Craig’s use of the term “voluntarism” is somewhat inaccurate. Yet he is correct when he adds that most (if not all) divine command theorists are non-voluntarists, as he defines the term. Coyne thinks this “is bait and switch”. This is because “Craig himself seemed in at least one case to hold to the voluntarist view of the DCT.”  Coyne quotes from Craig:

“But God has no such prohibition [the prohibition not to take an innocent life]. He can give and take life as He chooses.  We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second.  If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative …

… On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.”

Coyne rejoins, “If that’s not voluntaristic DCT, I don’t know what is.” Coyne provides a link to the article in question, so presumably he expects his readers – good free thinkers who accept nothing blindly on authority – to check his quote and verify what he says. When one does, however, the [Read more →]

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A Message from Northern Iraq

October 18th, 2014 by Matt

This message was apparently received by Auckland Salvation Army. It has been published in the Western Leader and Rodney Times:

“A friend just got a text message from her brother asking her to shower him and his parish in prayer.
“He is part of a mission and ISIS has taken over the town they are in.
Nazarene“He said ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus.
“He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed.
“But not the parents.
“The UN has withdrawn and the missionaries are on their own.
“They are determined to stick it out for the sake of the families – even if it means their own deaths.
“He is very afraid, has no idea how to even begin ministering to these families who have seen their children martyred.
“Yet he says he knows God has called him for some reason to be his voice and hands at this place at this time.
“Even so, he is begging prayers for his courage to live out his vocation in such dire circumstances.
“And, like the children, accept martyrdom if he is called to do so.
“The missionary’s sister asks everyone we know to please pray for them.
“These brave parents instilled such a fervent faith in their children that they chose martyrdom. Please surround them in their loss with your prayers for hope and perseverance.
“She was able to talk to her brother briefly by phone. She didn’t say, but I feel she believes it will be their last conversation.
“Pray for her too. She said he just kept asking her to help him know what to do and do it.
“She told him to tell the families we are praying for them and they are not alone or forgotten – no matter what.
“Her mail broke my heart. Please keep all in your prayers. Thank you.
“Just a few minutes ago I received a message on my phone from Sean Malone who leads Crisis Relief International (CRI).
“We spoke briefly and I assured him that we would share this urgent prayer need with all of our contacts.
“This was that caller’s message:
“We have lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh).
“It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically. This is the city we have been smuggling food too.
“ISIS has pushed back Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and is within 10 minutes of where our CRI team is working.
“Thousands more fled into the city of Erbil last night. The UN has evacuated its staff in Erbil. Our team is unmoved and will stay. Prayer cover needed!
“Please pray sincerely for the deliverance of the people of Northern Iraq from the terrible advancement of ISIS and its extreme Islamic goals for mass conversion or death for Christians across this region.
“I plead with you not to ignore his email.
“Send it to as many people as possible – especially your friends.”

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