A gentleman named Michael Nugent is planning to debate William Lane Craig next month. And so he’s reached out to Twitter for advice. Personally, I would not advise going to Twitter for debate advice. But there you have it. The tweets flooded in, including this one from Dan Barker:
Ask him, "If God told you to kill me, would you do it?" https://t.co/0io8IP9JBw
— Dan Barker (@DanBarkerFFRF) February 10, 2017
This tweet embodies what I like least about debates: the search for gotcha talking points. To be sure, it can be entertaining to watch an opponent turn bright red as she struggles with a gotcha point. But this approach to debating squanders any fiduciary commitment to the Golden Rule: debate with others in the way you’d like them to debate with you.
Note first that by asking a loaded question — one that calls to mind the old chestnut “How often do you beat your wife?” — Barker doesn’t commit himself to anything. Strategically, that’s wise. But that’s all it is, a matter of sophistic strategy to win over an audience.
Next, note that the question implicitly conflates at least three different scenarios:
- God told x to kill y.
- X believes God told him to kill y.
- God told x to kill y with the intent of communicating to x the desire that x kill y, and x has excellent reasons to believe (i.e. is justified in believing that) God told him to kill y.
Let’s keep in mind that any debate about God’s existence must have a definition of God at play, and by any standard definition God includes the attributes omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness.
So now consider 3 again: if an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being tells you to perform an action with the desire that you perform the action, then you ought to perform the action. Sorry to be deflationary, but this is trivially true. So the answer to the scenario under interpretation 3 is “yes”.
Now let’s consider the scenario under interpretation 2 for a moment. In this case, x could be wrong. For example, he could be delusional. So if you have reason to believe you are delusional when God asks you to perform an extreme action, should you perform the action? That’s clear enough: the answer to the scenario under interpretation 2 is “no”.
Here the atheist might counter, however, that theism provides a more hospitable climate for mental illness because delusional requests can always be attributed to God.
Sure, they can be attributed to God, but an atheist has an endless supply of non-theistic candidates to represent delusional requests too including pink elephants, green aliens, and Elvis.
Ahh, the atheist replies, but the idea that a request to kill would come from a pink elephant, green alien, or Elvis is unlikely under the typical atheist’s worldview. Fine, I reply, but the schizophrenic atheist does not represent the typical atheist’s worldview. My only point is that being an atheist does not protect the atheist against receiving delusional requests.
Finally, the atheist could leave behind the specter of mental illness and return again to 3. “So it is the case that you’d kill that person and it’d be right to kill that person if God said to do it!” After all, if God commands you to do x, and your obligation is constituted by God’s command, then it becomes your obligation to perform x. And that’s true even if x is something prima facie horrible like killing another person.
Sure, but here’s the thing: that point is trivial and applies to secular ethical systems too: the same hypotheticals can be run through a range of secular ethical positions. For example, consider utilitarianism: if the greatest good is to kill the person, and your obligation is constituted by the greatest good, then it becomes your obligation to kill the person.
To sum up, Dan Barker’s advice accomplishes nothing more than cheap gotcha point scoring. And if debating is about nothing more than making your opponent blush then I’d rather not debate.