This is part 14 of my review of John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist. For part 13 click here.
Loftus begins the chapter “Does Morality Come From God?” with the following assertion: “Christians claim their moral foundation is superior to others in that their faith provides the only sufficient standard for morality.” (103) To call this statement merely false would fail to capture the sheer bizarreness of the claim. I have never met any Christian who took the position that assent to Christian doctrinal claims is necessary for a “sufficient standard of morality”. Needless to say, the claim that all Christians take this position leaves me struggling to explain how Loftus could commit such an extraordinary gaffe.
Incredibly, Loftus himself falsifies this bizarre opening statement just one page later when he quotes Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne as saying that moral truths exist independently of God (104-5). Thus, according to the evidence Loftus himself provides, at least one Christian explicitly repudiates the position he just attributed to all Christians.
So Loftus’ chapter begins on a bad foot with a baldly false claim. From this point Loftus launches into a critique of divine command theories of ethics. While he provides a decent introduction to some recent debates over divine command theories of ethics, the critique is cursory (a mere two pages) and reflects Loftus’ one-sided modus operandi as he opts not to consider any of the rebuttals a divine command theorist would offer to his objections.
As cursory as Loftus’ treatment of divine command theories of ethics is, it looks comprehensive in comparison to his single paragraph dismissal of natural law theory (106). Natural law ethics may be a minority position in ethics today, but it still has extremely capable defenders in philosophers like John Finnis, Germain Grisez and J. Budzisewski. Consequently, for Loftus to think he can dismiss this weighty philosophical tradition in a paragraph says more about his own ignorance than any weakness in the natural law tradition.
Judging by the chapter, it would appear that Loftus is far more comfortable bashing the Bible than discussing technical metaethical and normative ethical theories. And so, he quickly turns his attention to the alleged immorality of the Bible beginning on page 108 in a section titled “Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is a Moral Monster”. In this section Loftus effectively marshals a wealth of biblical data to support his thesis, material that is often overlooked by Christians. In this respect he is to be commended, for Christians do need to wrestle with this material.
The problem is that many Christians have wrestled with this material and have offered various ways to resolve the moral challenges of the texts. While these discussions have been ongoing since the early church, in the last few decades there has been a renaissance of work in this area. See, for example, the treatments of scholars like Kent Sparks, Eric Seibert, Christopher Wright, Douglas Earl, Greg Boyd, Richard Hess, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Millard Lind, and so on. The fact that Christians have long acknowledged moral difficulties in the Bible and have offered a rich range of resources to resolve them presents something of an inconvenient truth for Loftus’ thesis. And so, he simply ignores these proposals.
Loftus does offer a critique of one evangelical proposal, that of Paul Copan. But the field of discussion is diverse and criticisms against Copan are completely irrelevant to the independent proposals of other scholars. To reject the Bible based on one’s critique of Copan is tantamount to rejecting atheism based on a critique of Richard Dawkins.
Loftus then concludes his cursory, one-sided and highly selective survey with a triumphalistic flourish:
“So I’ve answered the question posed by my chapter title. Does morality come from God? No, it does not. At this point there is really nothing more I need to say. The Christian assertions about morality are false. The verdict is in. The gavel has come down. The case is therefore closed.” (115)
I might be willing to forgive the superficial survey of this chapter (and book) were it not for statements like this. I have no problem with quick surveys of ethics and biblical difficulties, so long as you don’t delude yourself (and your reader) into thinking you’ve provided a definitive word on anything. Case closed? Give me a break.
Thus far, Loftus’ apologists have repeatedly insisted that I’m holding Why I Became an Atheist up to an unreasonable standard. But I’m merely holding it to the standard that Loftus himself has set with his own deluded triumphalism.
Loftus spends the rest of the chapter sketching out some thoughts on secular ethics. He then concludes by reflecting on all the goods he believes a Christian gives up by living out their Christian faith. For example, he asks us to pity “the fundamentalist Baptist minister who never may know what it’s like to get drunk.” (126) It is true, there are many Christians who will never know what it is like to have their physical and mental faculties impaired by the excessive consumption of alcohol. Whether this fact is one to be lamented can be left to the reader to decide.