This article is excerpted from my 2016 book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar (Prometheus), coauthored with Justin Schieber. Support the authors and consider buying a copy! You won’t be disappointed.
Well, okay, you might be disappointed — life gives no guarantees — but I’m betting you won’t be. Anyway, without further ado, let’s turn to the question: Could God command something morally heinous?
Justin: Admittedly, the following question deals with a specific theistic tradition (rather than mere classical theism as we’ve been so far discussing), but I think it might be useful in understanding how this perception functions on your view. We are both quite familiar with the story of the binding of Isaac. If you were there, would you have directly perceived what Abraham was willing to do as an evil act?
Randal: No problem, that’s fair game. Even if our primary focus is classical theism, I have made particular references to Christian theism in particular, and of course I am a Christian, so it is legitimate for you to ask about a specific part of the biblical narrative.
Justin: I knew it!
Randal: Let me first say that Jews and Christians have always taken a range of views over how to interpret narratives like the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), which is referenced in Genesis 22. Some interpreters have taken this to be a historical event that happened in the past. But others have interpreted it as a nonhistorical, allegorical tale with theological significance. Others believe it is historical, but they insist that a range of textual cues support the reading that Abraham knew God was not really demanding sacrifice. Still others adopt a sort of hybrid view, by taking the story in the terms of what Karl Barth called saga, which Barth views as something like an allegorical tale with some shadowy historical antecedent. My point is that interpretation of this narrative is an intramural debate among Jews and Christians. And the debate over how to interpret Genesis 22 does not affect my tradition of Christianity, let alone theism simpliciter.
With that long preamble out of the way, let me take the bull by the horns and address your question directly. What would I do if I believed God was telling me to kill my child as a spiritual sacrifice?
Simple. I’d seek counselling and medical advice. I’m guessing you would as well. I hope that response isn’t too disappointing, but it’s the truth. If I came to believe God was calling me to kill my child, I’d believe it was more likely that I was delusional than that God was calling me to kill my child, and I’d act accordingly.
Justin: Well, for your sake and for the sake of your child, I’m glad to hear it. Perhaps you can help my confusion. In the context of an earlier argument, you’ve remarked about the epistemic distance that exists between our knowledge of the moral realm and God’s knowledge of the moral realm. After all, if God is omniscient, she will know all possible goods and evils that could possibly exist and how they relate.
If that’s true, and if God has a morally sufficient reason beyond your finite, human understanding for commanding what you believe her to be commanding, then you shouldn’t expect to know what that justifying reason is, correct?
Randal: Um, yeah, sure. If God commands p, I shouldn’t expect to know why God commands p. By analogy, if the master mechanic working on my car asks me to hand him the cobalt screw extractor set, I shouldn’t expect to know why he has asked me to hand him the cobalt screw extractor set. But I can still ask whether he has asked me to hand him the cobalt screw extractor set. (After all, I could be wrong about that.)
As a Christian, I believe God rejects what is commonly called redemptive violence—that is, the use of violent means to bring about reconciliation between alienated parties. I believe the death of Jesus brings an end to all such appeals to violence as a means of reconciliation.
As a result, I will have a strong defeater to any claim that God is now commanding violence as a means of reconciliation. And that certainly encompasses the most sacred bond of the parent/child relationship.
So, as a Christian, I will have a strong reason to reject as genuine any perceived call of God to wreak violence upon my beloved progeny.
Justin: Okay, but I’m not entirely sure that is relevant in this case. After all, as you’ve suggested, God’s omniscience doesn’t merely entail that there are some moral truths beyond our grasp. It also suggests that you are in no position to say that this one reason you’ve identified is even loosely representative of the total reasons that God has available to her for acting. Moreover, we could, for the sake of the thought experiment, bring you back in time and place you in Abraham’s
It would seem, then, that you are in no position to guess the likelihood of God commanding that of you. For all you know, God has a supremely magnificent good, which can only be achieved through this initially unfortunate event.
Randal: Sure it is logically possible that God could command something that appears to be morally heinous. But, for goodness sake, Justin, something parallel to that is true of every moral theory. Take your own theory predicated on moral desires. It’s logically possible that moral desires could require actions that appear to be morally heinous. Since you’re raising a point that applies trivially to every moral system, I fail to see what you hope to accomplish by pushing that particular issue on me.
Justin: I worry you’ve missed the more important of the two points, Randal. Notice that I’m not just saying that it’s logically possible that God might permit something that appears to you as morally heinous. That wouldn’t be terribly interesting all by itself. Rather, I’ve made the additional claim that, given the epistemic distance between you and God, you are in no position to place likelihoods either way. That second part deserves some serious focus.
Randal: On the contrary, the cases are parallel on that point too. How do you know that you are not in a precisely parallel situation regarding your epistemic distance from the right moral desires? In other words, how do you know that the right moral desires are not ones you now consider morally heinous?
Justin: Of course it’s possible that I am wrong about a particular obligation I believe I have or don’t have. As you pointed out, that’s a potential issue on all views. Besides, that’s not even what I’m pressing here. You’ve said that, if you were to start thinking God was commanding you to do something you directly perceived as heinous (like killing your child or torturing and killing a POW, which you earlier said was always wrong no matter the circumstances), you would think yourself more likely delusional than that God was really commanding that act.
Justin: However, this reaction to my hypothetical shows that you believe yourself to have sufficient representative knowledge of the reasons God has available to her in order to claim that God probably would never command such a thing. Would you agree?
Randal: I’m glad you’re conceding that every moral theory faces the same hypothetical that a person could be radically incorrect in their current moral beliefs, whether those beliefs concern moral obligations, moral values, or desires. But I’m surprised that you don’t see how that fact undermines your whole line of questioning.
As for my current moral beliefs, as I said, a person’s fundamental knowledge of moral value on which moral obligations are predicated is not arrived at discursively by grasping particular reasons for action and inferring moral values and obligations from them. Rather, they are perceived immediately, as with Tolstoy’s immediate perception of the evil of capital punishment.
Justin: Yes, I’m aware that this is your view. My question though is not about how you perceive moral facts. Rather, my question is about how much is being perceived. Now, I’m sure we can agree that, given that God is morally perfect, God would not command something unless she had a morally sufficient reason to do so. It follows then that, when you responded to my hypothetical scenario about coming to believe that God was commanding you to kill your child by saying,
“I’d believe it was more likely that I was delusional than that God was
calling me to kill my child.”
we can translate that to,
“I’d believe it was more likely that I was delusional than that God has a
morally sufficient reason to command me to kill my child.”
Now, as finite beings, we might not be able to perceive any morally sufficient reason at all why an omniscient God, if she exists, would command such a killing or any other instance of evil for that matter. But the question I’ve been trying to get at is, does it logically follow that, just because we cannot perceive such a morally justifying reason for God to command you to kill your child, that it is therefore more likely that you are delusional?
Randal: But Justin, I’m not a utilitarian. In other words, I believe there are all sorts of actions that I could never have a moral obligation or moral calling to perform. For example, as I’ve already said, I believe torture and rape are categorically evil. Since I believe those actions are necessarily immoral, it follows that I could never have a moral obligation to torture or rape another person. I have the same view about devotional child killing, and I’ve defended that view in a conference paper called “I want to give the baby to God: Three theses on devotional child killing.”
Justin: Well, color me confused. On the one hand, you claim that certain acts are necessarily immoral. And yet, earlier you said that it is merely more likely that you are delusional than that God wants you to kill your child. If you think that God commanding you to kill your child is not impossible, then how were you able to entertain my hypothetical in the first place? We could have saved some time if you had just argued my hypothetical was incoherent in the first place.
Randal, you’ve said you’re not a utilitarian. I wonder though, do you think God is? For example, in the previous discussion on religious disagreement, you suggest that God allows certain horrific evils to occur in the world for some greater good.
Randal: Unfortunately you keep trying to hammer a point that I’ve already responded to. But let me restate my reply a bit differently.
First, as I said, I believe there are a range of actions that are categorically immoral, and, as such, they could never be morally permissible to perform, including rape, torture, cannibalism, devotional child killing, and so on. Since these are categorically immoral, no divine being would ever command them.
Ahh, you say, but what if God did command them? What then? Huh? Huh?
And this brings me back to the second point I’ve already made. While you seem to think that these per impossibile scenarios that you keep raising present a unique problem for theism, the reality is that the exact same scenarios can be presented to the atheist ethicist like yourself.
For example, at present you agree with me that the desires to perform actions like rape, torture, cannibalism, and devotional child killing are categorically immoral. But what if you come to believe that the morally right desire is to rape, torture, cannibalize, and kill? Then you’ll need to rape, torture, cannibalize, and kill!
Justin: My confusion here was flowing from the fact that you were entertaining my hypothetical in a way that seemed you merely thought it less likely that God would command such a thing rather than flatout impossible.
That said, you raise a good point. If I were to fall under the radical delusion of thinking that the desire to rape or torture are the kinds of desires that, when introduced or increased, tend to fulfill desires rather than thwart them, and that therefore rape or torture could, in certain circumstances, become obligatory, I’d also seek help from a mental health professional.
Randal: Well, we can certainly high five on that point!