In the discussion thread to my article “Canadian war criminals?” Jason Thibodeau opined that human beings fail to reason well about morality in part because “morality has been hijacked by religion, apparently for as long as civilization has existed.” He explained further:
“The vast majority of people think that there is some kind of essential connection between morality and religion. This makes reflective criticism of our moral beliefs especially difficult even in this modern age when religious authority does not enjoy the power and respect it once did.”
This seemed a most curious charge to me, as I explained in my response:
“What is “religion”? Whatever it may be, it tends to include a set of basic beliefs about the nature of human persons and the nature of the good. That’s why we call it religion. So to say religion “hijacked” the very beliefs that define religion as religion evinces a failure to understand what religion is.”
Jason then responded by clarifying his meaning. It turns out he was really reacting not to religion per se so much as theistic religion of a particular type:
“I am referring specifically to the notions that morality is only possible if God exists and that being moral is a matter of obeying God’s commands. This [sic] are noxious notions that an unfortunately large number of human beings have believed.”
Them’s fightin’ words!
Can Jason possibly defend this claim? I don’t see how he can. Indeed, it is clear that he cannot and his rhetoric simply got the best of him. I might have ignored his statement except that I have heard similar claims on other occasions from other folks so I thought it is worth rebutting them here.
So let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s start with a definition of “noxious”. Noxious. adjective. “morally harmful; corrupting; pernicious“.
And now let’s look at the claims.
Claim 1: The belief that (objective) morality only exists if God exists is morally harmful, corrupting and pernicious.
Claim 2: The belief that being moral is a matter of obeying God’s commands is morally harmful, corrupting and pernicious.
Now I certainly agree that one can hold various beliefs about morality which are morally harmful, corrupting, and pernicious. That’s true of both theists and atheists. The question here is whether claims 1 and 2 are true. And I would submit that they are not.
Let’s consider claim 1. This is so obviously false that I struggle to find why Jason might think it true. While I can’t speak for Jason’s case, in my experience folks who make claims like this often conflate the belief that morality depends on God with the claim that those who don’t believe in God are immoral. Back in 1989 Glenn Tinder wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “Can we be good without God?” Tinder’s claim wasn’t that you must believe in God to be ethical (still less that all people who believe in God are ethical). And yet, many readers rejected his argument based on those spurious (and careless) interpretations. Instead, Tinder’s claim is that the only adequate ontological ground for morality is a theistic one. Tinder may be right and he may be wrong, but there is nothing inherently harmful or pernicious about a theistic metaethical theory. So I’m left wondering if Jason has a similar confusion. Beyond that I’m at a loss for how he could possibly defend claim 1.
What about claim 2? This claim is obviously false. To see why it is false, let me give you one example of a divine command theory of ethics which is clearly not morally harmful. (And note, just one example is sufficient to falsify claim 2.)
Sample divine command theory of ethics: God is maximally good and loving and has commanded his creatures to love one another. This divine command constitutes the moral obligation that all creatures have always to love one another.
Surely Jason has nothing against loving one another. So why would he object to the belief that a maximally good and loving being has commanded the love of one another?
Once again, I won’t try to get into Jason’s thinking. But on the other occasions I’ve heard this kind of objection, it is to some particular divine command theory: for example a divine command theory in which God is taken to issue commands that contradict our moral knowledge (e.g. a command to sacrifice a child or carry out a genocide). But that is to conflate the token with the type. As the sample divine command theory I provided makes clear, there is nothing inherently problematic about divine command theories. It all depends on what you believe the nature of the deity and his/her/its commands to be.