Last year, Christian radio host Justin Brierley published his apologetics book, Unbelievable. It’s a delightful book — clearly argued and engaging to read — so much so that it even earned an endorsement from yours truly! It also earned a book-length response from several atheists, predictably titled Still Unbelievable.
Ever the hospitable host, Justin has invited two of the authors of Still Unbelievable to appear on a forthcoming episode of his radio program “Unbelievable.” (To recap, Justin invited two authors on “Unbelievable” to discussion Still Unbelievable, a response to Unbelievable.)
Justin also invited me to be his wingman on the program. And in preparation for the show, I’ve been reading through Still Unbelievable.
As you can probably guess, there is much in Still Unbelievable with which I disagree. Perhaps most disappointingly, the overall tone of the contributors is contemptuous of Christian belief. Christianity is not a serious intellectual system worthy of careful consideration: rather, it is a retrogressive worldview that belongs to childhood. And it is only cognitive dissonance and intellectual regression that allows us to think otherwise.
Along the way, the book also raises countless objections, though rarely are they developed with any rigor. And in this article, I want to address one of those examples. One of the authors, Michael Brady, raises the charge that divine command theory ethics is especially prone to abuse by the irrational/delusional individual:
“Some Christians are willing to go all in, and give it all to God. Under Divine Command Theory (DCT) the fideist is committed to doing whatever his God tells him to do. We correctly live in fear that such a person might experience a mental health crisis.”
I decided to interact with this charge because it is one I’ve heard oft repeated. It is also an objection based on a crude rendering of DCT and is consequently utterly without merit.
So note the following. First, DCT is typically a theory of the origin and nature of moral obligation, not moral value. In other words, God does not command what is good and evil but only what our specific moral obligations are toward that which is good and evil. Consequently, the person who believes God is generating moral values by divine fiat simply misunderstands what the theory is.
Second, the DCT theorist is not committed to the view that God performs particular speech acts directed at various individuals to command them what to do: e.g. “Hey, Billy, this is God. I command you to sacrifice your sister!” And I don’t know any DCT theorist who believes moral knowledge comes about in this ad hoc manner.
Note as well that the DCT theorist could believe that God’s commands are discerned in various public and objective means, e.g. through deeply-seated and universally held moral intuitions or through rigorous deductive arguments, for example.
This leads me to a third observation. The force of Brady’s objection really is on the seemingly instantaneous and arbitrary nature of DCT, as he sees it. Thus, for example, Brady fears the individual that suddenly concludes that God wants him to do x. (For further discussion, see my conference paper “I want to give the baby to God: Three theses on God and devotional child killing.”)
But note that if you truly are mentally ill, you will find a rationalization for your actions whether you’re a DCT theorist or not. You may be a secular Kantian deontologist, a Millsian Utilitarian, a relativist, an antirealist, or an Aristotelian virtue theorist: it hardly matters. But if you decide it is right and perhaps obligatory to commit some heinous action, you will find a way to justify your actions. There’s no justification to single out DCT as especially “dangerous”
To sum up, those who think that DCT provides some unique ability to justify heinous actions understand neither DCT nor the self-justifying resources of those with mental illness.