Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 21

I asked Jonathan MS Pearce to look over my reviews of the first five chapters of Christianity is not Great so I thought I would return the favor and review his chapter in the book. Chapter 21 is entitled: “Tu Quoque, Atheism?” — Our Right to Judge. He asks: “Do we nontheists have an epistemic right to judge Christians, to assign moral value to their actions? Are we throwing around accusations of harm without having our own foundation upon which to base them, as many Christians claim?”

Pearce’s first answer is that it doesn’t matter because Christians themselves are often critical of the actions of other Christians (past and present). It is true that we Christians can be self-critical of our actions, but this answer isn’t a true answer to the questions posed above. Perhaps Christians have a right to judge their own actions because they have a foundation on which to make such judgments, while non-theists have no such foundation.

The author’s second answer is that the book is testing the hypothesis that God is love. He asks: how is the fact that Christianity and Christians have contributed harm to the world coherent with the existence of an all-loving, morally perfect God? Allegedly this makes the problem of evil an even bigger problem than it otherwise would be. He then goes on to say that we can use the morality of the Bible to judge the actions in the Bible and in extra-biblical history. Pearce needs to explain what is meant when we say God is love in order to show that it is logically incompatible with the fact that Christianity and Christians contributed harm to the world. It is not clear to me what the alleged incompatibility is supposed to be or why this makes the problem of evil a more difficult problem. However, I can agree with the statement that the atheist can use the morality of the Bible to judge actions in the Bible and in extra-biblical history.

Pearce’s third answer is to affirm that atheists do have a right to judge Christians. This is the main focus of the chapter:

I will start by defining the relevant terms then briefly critiquing the main concepts of Christian ethical systems, with particular reference to the idea that (the Judeo-Christian) God himself appears to be a moral consequentialist. This refutes the claim of his acolytes that he is needed to ground morality. I will show that most philosophers are nontheistic and hold to a variety of nontheistic moral value systems that do not necessitate a god and invariably undermine Christian morality. I will go further to argue that morality indeed presupposes atheism in order to make sense.

Defining Our Terms

The author provides a couple definitions. He defines morality as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. He defines objective morality as facts about what constitutes moral behavior that lie in the nature of the agent’s action, regardless of cultural and individual opinion.

On Christian Theories of Ethics

This section is only intended to cover two major Christian ethical theories.

Christian Natural Law Theory

I object to the title of this section because one does not need to be a Christian to be an adherent of natural law theory. Pearce seems to realize this but does not appear to understand the natural law position. He asks:

Of course, such a theory sounds nice, but what does it really mean to have something written on our hearts? What is the ontology of such morality? These fundamental philosophical questions remain unsatisfactorily answered.

When Paul speaks of the work of the law being written on pagan Gentile hearts he is merely saying that pagan Gentiles possess the moral norms of the law (see Commentary on Romans 2:1-16). The moral ontology of natural law is based on formal causes and final causes as described in the works of, for instance, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. These fundamental philosophical questions are answered and Pearce does not interact with them at all to show that they are unsatisfactory.

Divine Command Theories

Note the plural (theories) for this section title.

One kind of divine command theory says that we obey God’s moral commands because it is prudent. We obey God’s commands in order to inherit eternal life and avoid hell. Pearce asserts that this commits the appeal to force fallacy. The appeal to force is not always a fallacy and I’m not sure it’s a fallacy here. It seems to fit the author’s definition of morality as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. If a rational person believed obeying God led to eternal life (a most excellent state of being) would he not obey God? Would this not be the agreed upon code of conduct of all rational persons?

A second kind of divine command theory says that we follow God’s commands because God is good. Pearce writes: “If God is good then we have a sort of tautology and cannot have any independent appreciation of the value of his goodness. But if there is an independent criterion then I have no need of God for a moral judgment.” I’m not sure such a divine command theorist can’t take a both/and approach. We follow God’s commands because they are good and we know they are good based on some independent criterion. God’s commands help us to better identify and adhere to this independent criterion.

Pearce also criticizes divine command theories because the commands of God are not always clear. There is some truth to this but I think it can be overstated. We also have to consider that there are difficult moral questions. We may all agree on basic moral principles but disagree on, say, whether country A should go to war with country B. I’m not aware of any ethical theories that will offer crystal clear moral advice for every situation. The ethics put forth by atheists will have the same problem.

On Atheist Ethics: What Philosophers Think

This section summarizes the results from the PhilPapers survey in order to lay out options for atheist ethics.

But the important result is as follows: 72.8 percent of philosophers are atheists, 14.6 percent being theists. A huge majority of philosophers deny the existence of a god of any kind. And yet we have just learned that some 67.7 percent believe in deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics. So, clearly, many philosophers believe that you do not need to believe in a god to coherently hold a moral philosophical worldview.

But note that 27.7% of philosophers are moral anti-realists, meaning they deny the truth value of moral statements. This group of philosophers cannot attack the actions of Christians because they do not believe there is any truth to whether Christians have been good or bad. An atheist can say that the arguments for the existence of objective morality are no better than the arguments for the existence of God and reject both kinds of arguments. A significant minority of atheist philosophers have no foundation from which to judge Christian actions.

Some Moral Theories That Atheists Can and Do Hold

In this section the author briefly describes three moral theories an atheist could hold: virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism. The three need not be mutually exclusive and a theist could could hold one of these positions too. It is strange that Pearce mentions virtue ethics positively since the Christian natural law theory panned earlier in the chapter can be seen as a kind of virtue ethics! Perhaps that is a danger in looking at morality through the theism/atheism debate.

God Is a Consequentialist

The precise theme of this section is hard to pin down. We seemed to have moved from judging Christian actions in history to judging God. The following quote may be the most important in the section:

Theodicies seek to provide answers as to why such suffering exists. Indeed, the job of a theologian in response to all of the examples given in this book is to defend God, and to justify his actions and inactions, with various consequentialist theodicies. If people are being used in service of a greater good then they are being used as a consequentialist means to an end.

All of the suffering described in this book can be morally permissible only if God is a consequentialist. And if he is, then he has no need of himself for his own morality. He can be judged quite easily by an atheist, thank you very much.

In the previous section Pearce seemed open to the idea that one could marry virtue ethics to consequentialism. In this section he does not seem to explore what relationship virtue ethics might have to theodicy. Perhaps God’s actions and inactions create an environment where mankind can grow in virtue. It is not clear to me that, in such a scenario, man is being used as a means to an end.

But let’s suppose consequentialism is true. In one sense an atheist could render a judgment on God; he can give God a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The problem is that God is omniscient and can quite simply tell the atheist he is wrong.

Morality Presupposes Atheism

The argument put forth in this section is intended to show that theological individualism (TI), the existence of God and the existence of intense suffering, together with our obligation to prevent it, are not mutually compatible. Pearce lays out the argument from Stephen Maitzen as follows:

  1. If God exists and TI is true, then, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.
  2. If, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer, then (a) we never have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering or (b) our moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering derives entirely from God’s commands.
  3. We sometimes have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering, an obligation that does not derive entirely from God’s commands. Two subconclusions follow from the three premises just established:
  4. So: It isn’t the case that, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer. [From (2), (3)]
  5. So: God does not exist or TI is false. [From (1), (4)]
  6. If not even God may treat human beings merely as means, then TI is true.
  7. Not even God may treat human beings merely as means. It remains, then, only to draw the argument’s final two inferences:
  8. So: TI is true. [From (6), (7)]
  9. So: God does not exist. [From (5), (8)]

One response is to deny that TI is true. Pearce thinks that TI must hold if God has the attributes that theists claim. But why? If the theist believes that God is Goodness Itself (as opposed to being good because he performs actions A, B, and C) then he seems free to reject TI.

A second response, based off an idea from Randal Rauser, is that (2a) does not follow. It could be that God arranges things so that human suffering that does occur is to the net benefit of the sufferer and that God causes a Good Samaritan to intervene to prevent some cases of suffering from going on for too long.

A third response is to insist that our moral obligations do entirely derive from God’s commands. Those who believe otherwise are simply wrong.

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3 Replies to “Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 21”

  1. Hi Jayman,

    First:

    “If God is good then we have a sort of tautology and cannot have any independent appreciation of the value of his goodness. But if there is an independent criterion then I have no need of God for a moral judgment.” I’m not sure such a divine command theorist can’t take a both/and approach. We follow God’s commands because they are good and we know they are good based on some independent criterion. God’s commands help us to better identify and adhere to this independent criterion.

    This gets to the heart of the DCT issue, as set out here:
    http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2014/02/26/the-problem-with-divine-command-theory-1/
    and
    http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/08/21/the-problem-with-divine-command-theory-2/

    You cannot have a both /and because that means that moral reasoning does underpin morality (as well it should) because this renders God unnecessary for morality. Now the Christian can do this for sure (I would argue they should) but this is not what they argue when they use the moral argument – that God is necessary for morality. Because this accepts that he isn’t.

  2. Hi Jayman, this is off topic, but I was wondering what books or even articles online you think best argue for the existence of God and/or the truth of Christian, such that an open minded skeptic might be persuaded. Thanks a lot.

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