Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can a Good God exist? An Atheist and a Christian Debate the Problem of Evil (4 and Final)

(click here for Charger's previous post)
(click here to see the beginning of this discussion)

This will be my third and final response to the Charger on the Problem of Evil. (I originally introduced the Problem of Evil and I have had three responses to the Charger after that, that’s why the number 4 is listed in the title)  Before I had even read the Charger’s most recent piece I had told him that I was going to use this response to wrap up my side of things. This discussion has dominated a lot of my time for the last three months and I have other things I need and desire to work on. Now after reading the Charger’s most recent response I will be making this my last piece for another reason; this discussion is simply not going anywhere. Due to multiple faulty assumptions, clear misunderstandings and basic confusion this dialog has ended up being far less helpful for those interested in exploring the Problem of Evil then I had originally hoped it would be. At the end of this piece I will add a few links to some essays and articles that will give people a much better look into the Problem of Evil than can be found here if they are truly concerned with this topic.
Now in my previous response I noted multiple times that the Charger had missed something or skipped something from my first piece. He seemed to just ignore various issues that I brought up. He continued that trend in his most recent blog but I finally understood why due to how the Charger begins his response. After merely two paragraphs the Charger said, “since the Worrywart is asserting that the Problem of Evil proves that God doesn’t exist, the burden of proof is on him to prove that his arguments are valid.  I don’t have to prove anything—I merely have to rebut his arguments in order for the theistic position to succeed.  And if both of his arguments (the logical and evidential problems of evil) are rebutted, my opponent loses this debate, regardless of anything else that occurs in this debate.” The second I read this it was like the light bulb finally went on for me as to why the Charger’s pieces were set up the way they were and why they seemed so incomplete, he didn’t believe he had anything to prove. How or why the Charger has made this mistake I do not know but when discussing the existence of God it is in fact the theist who bears the burden of proof not the atheist. David Eller explains the issue of the burden of proof very well in his book “Natural Atheism”, which helps expose the Charger’s error here. Eller says:
“It is often mistakenly asserted that Atheists must prove their case; when an Atheist states that he or she does not believe in god, a Theist will respond, ‘Can you prove there is no god?’ Even worse, the occasional sophisticated Theist will meet you with the argument that ‘you cannot prove a negative.’ However logically and rhetorically, the Theist is wrong on both counts. A simple formulation of the burden-of-proof concept is that the party who makes a claim has the burden to prove or justify that claim, not the party who questions the claim…In the case of a religious argument, it is the Theist who makes the claim about god’s existence or attributes, and therefore it is he or she who must back up that claim. So, when the Theist asks you to prove there is no god, you are under no obligation to do so whatsoever. Further, it is not true that it is impossible to prove a negative. It is unnecessary to prove a negative, but if you can, then the case against the claim becomes even stronger, perhaps conclusive. For example, if someone accuses you of a crime (that is, makes a claim of factual truth), you can prove the negative (your innocence) by providing an alibi, producing witnesses who saw the event, or otherwise proving the impossibility or self-contradiction of the accusation.
In fact, let us pursue this analogy, for the American courtroom is a model of evidence and argument procedures. Let us imagine a prosecutor who asserts a charge, like ‘X did the crime’ or ‘There is a god.’ The charge is the positive claim—a truth claim that the statement embedded in the charge is true. The defense attorney rejects the charge as untrue. In our system of justice, we maintain that one is innocent until proven guilty. So the prosecutor must present his best evidence and argument for the truth of the charge. The defender can and in most cases should refute that evidence and argument as best he or she can and even introduce counterevidence and counterargument if possible. However, it is in the final analysis unnecessary that this be done. The defender could sit with feet up on the table without uttering a word, and ideally if the prosecution does not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant goes free. In other words, the defense (the ‘negative’) has no burden on it—literally, nothing to prove. Notice too that, since guilt naturally means the truth of the initial charge and innocence means its falsity, the presumption of innocence equates to a presumption of falsity: a claim is false until proven true.
So despite the Charger’s claim it is in fact he who bears the burden of proof. If we use the courtroom analogy than this discussion between the Charger and I that began with me presenting the Problem of Evil would be like beginning a trail in the middle with the defense (atheist) going first presenting what is counterevidence (the Problem of Evil) to the prosecutor’s (theist) accusation (God exists). The fact that we started in the middle does not somehow change who bears the burden of proof when discussing God’s existence and that is the theist. Atheism is in fact obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God.
Now by me beginning this discussion it meant we began as if the Charger had already made some sort of rational argument for the existence of God though of course he did not. I accepted that assumption (that the Charger had made some sort of pro-theist argument) when I began this discussion but that did not somehow make belief in God the default position that needed no evidence to support itself. It was never assumed that God existed rather the only shared belief by both parties when this discussion began was the existence of evil/suffering. The Charger was then to prove why it was rational to believe his God existed despite suffering and I was to present my case as to why I felt suffering made it irrational to believe in the Charger’s God (all-good, all-powerful, etc.). The Charger’s mistake here prevented him from actually dealing with most of the issues I raised. He spent the majority of his pieces fighting the logical problem of evil and then trying to apply those deductive arguments to the evidential problem of evil as well. I truly do not understand why the Charger thought he only had to make his God logically possible to “win” this debate? No matter the reason it has made this exercise fairly disappointing. I feel we really missed an opportunity to discuss some of the harder issues theists face when looking at the suffering that exists in the world. Really due to this fact the Charger did not offer much that was new for me to deal with in his last piece. I could in fact say “see my previous piece” in response to most of what the Charger said here. The fact is the Charger believed he had nothing to prove and so not surprisingly he proved nothing. Still I will go through and reiterate what I previously said and add some more comments.
I) Logical Problem of Evil  
There is little to say in this section of great significance. I maintain that an all-powerful, all-good God who was only capable of creating the world as we know it with the evil and suffering it now contains and the evil and suffering that will be maintained throughout eternity due to the existence of hell should have not created anything at all. It shows a lack of responsibility that would be similar to a couple deciding to have a child knowing that they would not be able to take care of it. The Charger seems to want creation to be the source of some “greater good” that would not have been possible without creation but that is problematic given that his God is supposed to be perfect lacking nothing. If creation and humanity enabled some “greater good” to exist that did not and could not exist when God was alone then God cannot be viewed as perfect goodness. Rather God would have lacked some “goodness” on his own. This of course goes against traditional views of the Abrahamic God who is said to be perfect and complete in and of itself not needing humanity in any way but rather he choose to create us for his own glory. To me God’s decision to create this world merely for his own glory, knowing the evil that would follow and endless suffering awaiting the majority of humanity, displays a fairly self-involved being who was more interested in what creation (humans) would be able to do for him rather then what the consequence would be for that creation (humans).
II) The Evidential Problem of Evil
In this section the Charger ignores a vast majority of what I said in my previous piece and merely repeats his arguments from his previous blogs, which were arguments that did not actually deal with the evidential problem of evil. There really is not a lot for me to do in this section except remind the readers what I have already said and again point out the Charger’s mistakes.
In the Charger’s section “How much is too much?” he ignores or does not understand the standard which I gave him and then refuses to offer any possible theistic solutions for the examples of evil and suffering that I provided. The standard remains the same “too much evil” = “pointless/gratuitous evil”. As a theist he does not believe there is any pointless suffering and so YES he must offer proofs for that. What greater good was accomplished by the tsunami that hit Japan? Or the number of Jews, in fact the number of all the people, who died in the Holocaust? Or the multiple rapes committed by Robert Burdick? Those are all places where I see suffering that did not unveil some magic goodness that was not possible without them but I could be wrong if the Charger would simply show me. This is where the weakness of the Charger’s position flares up again and again, he simply refuses to deal with actual examples of suffering and evil. Explain to us what “greater good” came from these events to justify your beliefs. Or at least provide some rational reason to believe that these events allowed for some greater good besides just the fact that you want that to be the case.
The fact remains that the evidential problem of evil does not seek to deal in absolutes (God cannot exist) but rather in probabilities (God does not likely exist). Now at the beginning of the section the Charger actually reminded his readers of this saying, “Unlike the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem only tries to prove that God probably doesn’t exist.  But then he goes on and seems to simply forget or dismiss this fact. The question in this section is, “is it rational to believe in God?” To answer this question one must deal with actual examples not merely logical propositions. But the Charger continued to harp that, “my opponent hasn’t ever proven that there is such a thing as “gratuitous” evil.” He seems determined to simply ignore the proofs I’m giving him saying that it is logically possible that I am wrong. Of course it is logically possible I am wrong it’s also logically possible that he is wrong but we are not talking merely about logically possibilities here we are talking about rational probabilities in this section. Is it more rational to believe some “greater good” came from Robert Burdick’s multiple rapes or that there was suffering that was in fact pointless? Is it more rational to believe that every single person killed, hurt, and affected by the tsunami in Japan is in fact better for having gone through that suffering or that there was in fact suffering that did not produce “greater goods”? The Charger continues to merely assert “greater goods” come from evil but he refuse to offer any rational for that belief or to deal with any of the specific examples of suffering I have provided.
The Charger wants to pretend that my thoughts here are circular, which is of course false. He also accuses me of making an argument from ignorance (true until proven false), which I find funny because it is in fact he who is doing this. This is not fully his fault because theism in fact encourages arguments from ignorance. Instead of rejecting a proposition if it is probably false, the theist accepts it because it is not certainly false. The fact is that a majority of the Charger’s piece is based on arguments from ignorance. One can see that here; he argues that if we cannot know for certain that gratuitous suffering exists and that it remains logically possible that it does not exist then he is rational for assuming that it does not exist no matter how much evidence exists to the contrary. But that is not how one arrives at rational beliefs rather that is how one tries to justify irrational beliefs. The Charger cannot rely on deductive arguments here rather he must deal with the evidence. Yes, one can argue that it is logically possible that there was some “greater good” that occurred due to the Holocaust but that does not solve the evidential problem of evil or even deal with it. The question is; is it rational to believe that the Holocaust produced “greater goods,” the lack of which would have created a worse earth than if the Holocaust had never happened?  Can one truly account for every person who was killed; every person who was hurt (physically and emotionally); every possession that was destroyed; and every life (animal/plant) that was wiped out? I think one would be hard pressed to do so. Rather I think that it is far more likely to see that yes there was in fact suffering that occurred that did not somehow make the people or situations involved better and no the world would not be a worse place had the Holocaust not occurred. But if the Charger thinks I’m wrong he should have actually tried and explain why offering rational explanations for these events rather than ignoring them and pretending like there wasn’t even a problem.
Until the Charger is willing to leave the safety of the logical problem of evil and come down into the dirty mess of the evidential problem of evil than he cannot pretend to have offered any solution or rebuttal to the evidential problem of evil. The fact is that in all of his responses he has offered no possible answers to the problem besides “I don’t know but neither do you so I must be right” (argument of ignorance) which I find fairly disappointing. 
III) Theodicies
The Charger begins his theodicy section by claiming he has won the argument and thus his theodicy section is not even really necessary. Of course based on the numerous mistakes he made in the previous section on the evidential problem of evil and his overall unwillingness to actually deal with the issues every theist must deal with to prove God’s existence this claim is false. He then asserts that all his theodicies must do to succeed is present a case where his God is logically possible. This remains inaccurate and I just do not understand why the Charger continues to assert this when it is clearly not true. When this whole discussion started we were supposed to discuss both whether the existence of the Charger’s God was logically possible and whether belief in his God was overall rational. The Charger has spent all his time focused on the first issue, his God’s logically possibility, while ignoring the second issue, his God’s rational probability, despite the fact that I said multiple times it was the second issue that I was more concerned with. The Charger can continue to claim his God is logically possible but that does not make belief in his God rational nor does it make belief in his God desirable.
Free Will Defense 
Free will remains the key to everything the Charger argues in his theodicy section so I will make a few comments here. The biggest issue throughout this section is that the Charger continues to focus on what is logically possible while I focus on what is most probably meaning what is rational.
God and Free Will
I had previous noted that the libertarian free will that the Charger is so desperate to maintain for humanity is a free will that his God does not actually have. One can look at my previous piece for all my arguments. I will not repeat them because the Charger does not actually deal with them. He simply repeats that it is logically possible for his God to exist and create this world. But the fact remains it is also logically possible for a God to exist that created a better world so rationally speaking if God really is all-good which world would one expect God to make? I would lean towards a better world.
A large problem for the free will defense is that if there is in fact no logical contradiction involved in saying that God could have made people who always freely chose to do what is right then God in fact should have made that world and the free will defense collapses. Just as in the Logical Problem of Evil the Charger was only responsible for demonstrating a logical possibility for the coexistence of evil and God (all-good, all-powerful) here the atheist need only show the logical possibility of humans who always freely chose to do what is right in order to defeat the free will defense. I addressed this in my previous piece but see this this essay by Andrea Weisberger for a great layout of this issue. She deals with the free will defense as presented by Alvin Plantinga and Clem Dore showing the weaknesses of both.
The Charger maintains that in heaven being in the unfiltered presence of God will keep people from choosing to sin while maintaining their free will. The question of course becomes “why doesn’t God do that now here on earth?” The Charger responded that if God were to allow people into his unfiltered presence on earth, unlike in heaven, he would be forcing himself upon us against our will as in the crime of rape. I gave multiple examples to demonstrate what I see as the weaknesses in his argument. First, I said that God showing his presence to people on earth cannot be compared to rape by the typical theist (Abrahamic God) as there are numerous biblical examples of God showing himself to people like Paul and Moses. With these examples the Charger said that these people sinned after they were no longer in the presence of God whereas in heaven people remain in God’s presence and thus will not sin. Now that is fine but he did not explain why God showing himself to them and changing the direction of their lives here on earth was not equal to rape as he said it would be if God exposed him presence to everyone on earth?  These people’s apparent exposure to God greatly affected their lives and led them down the “proper” path God willed for them. So again why doesn’t God merely do the same for all of us? Why would this be considered rape for some and not others? Second, I argued that being in God’s unfiltered presence cannot be thought to be enough to keep people from sinning as people who were in God’s presence still chose to sin. Adam and Eve and Satan were my main examples here. The Charger believes, like Paul and Moses, Adam and Eve only sinned because they were no longer in the presence of God. I find the Adam and Eve story to be a bit more complicated than that since the in theory at the time they were perfect and before eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were actually incapable of knowing that disobeying God was “evil”. Then with the Satan story the Charger is unable to give any reason why Satan and a third of the angels who had always been in God’s presence would suddenly decide to rebel against God the way Christian tradition teaches. The Charger says perhaps the devil had a onetime choice and for some reason God took away his influence for that moment. Why would God do that? Will he do that again in heaven? If he will not remove his influence in heaven to make sure people don’t sin why would he have done it in that moment to allow Satan to sin? Again we are left with a God whose presence, according to the Charger, could “influence” us not to sin without affecting our free will but who for no apparent reason decides not to do that (help us) until a certain time in the future when he will favor a small group of people in heaven over the majority of humans who ever existed who will burn in hell. So my question is; does this God who is “logically possible” equal a God who is rational to believe in? Again I would say no. I would even go further and say that this God is not even desirable considering a different God (also logically possible) could have done better.
The Charger claims that people will retain their free will in hell. In fact he says most theist believe that to which I would say he should do some more research, particularly historically, because I have not found that to be the case. Historically hell is a place where one’s freedoms are withdrawn from them and they are forced to suffer in numerous ways for eternity with no ability/freedom to make it stop. He then compares the ability to leave hell to the ability to fly pointing out that the bible says sins will not be forgiven in the age to come. He says, “In hell, we no longer have the ability to choose Christ.” So clearly there are choices that are no longer possible due to the fact that God removes those choices so why did God not remove certain choices before all these people were sent to hell to prevent this eternal evil from existing?
Historical Weakness
Here I will add that when it comes to the Charger’s free will argument church history is simply not on his side. Numerous parts of scripture and teachers of the church have taught that God’s sovereignty outweighs human freedom. The Westminster Confession states, “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.” John Calvin said that the damned are damned “by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible judgment.” And Martin Luther says, “The highest degree of faith is to believe He is just, though of His own will He makes us…proper subjects for damnation…If I could by any means understand how this same God…can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith.” The list could obviously be much longer but the point is made. The fact is theists have never agreed among themselves upon the existence or extent of free will and if they cannot come to any sort of consensus how is an outsider observer supposed to understand what kind of God these theists are claiming exists and then decide if that God is rational to believe in? The God the Charger is presenting to me is not the same God many other theists have presented to me. And these other gods remain “logically possible” but many Christians today reject them because it has become more obvious how horrible such “logically possible” gods are. The type of God the theist usually forwards is a type of God that matches up best to the morality and ethics of the time period and culture in which that theist is in. I admit I like the Charger’s God better than some of the gods different theists have forwarded throughout history but at the end of the day his God remains a “logical possibility” (still irrational) that is a moral disappointment and unworthy of actual devotion or worship.    
Free Will Theodicy
Here the Charger continues to maintain the free will is so highly valuable it outweighs the evil consequences that come from it. Here I continue to simply disagree with the amount of value the Charger places on complete libertarian free will. And then I go on to point out numerous ways God could have made the world better without affecting a person’s libertarian free will at all.
Assorted Examples
In all of my previous pieces I provided examples of how God could have done things differently without affecting any version of a person’s libertarian free will. Basically God could have made a better world. In his second piece the Charger glossed over most of these examples (skin color, language, strength, etc.) both missing the point of them and not providing any answers to the examples themselves. I pointed this out in my last piece and reiterated these examples in order to get the Charger to address them. But in his most recent piece he still did not go back and deal with any of those examples though oddly he seems to think he dealt with them. He said, “The Worrywart gives many different examples—for which I provided answers—but he argues correctly that the bigger issue is whether God could/should have created a better world.” I don’t know what answers he thinks he provided but at least in his newest piece we see that he understood the issue behind the examples, which is whether God could make a better world. But sadly he still provides no answers as to why God did not do some of these simple things that would greatly reduce the amount of suffering that has occurred on earth. He merely says, “I don’t think God should be blamed for imperfections in the world. If we really do have free will—and this free will was abused through rebellion against God—then it only makes since that perfection would be limited.” Again he just does not seem to be able to understand that each of these examples would not affect humanity’s free will in the slightest.
One of my main points in this section was that God could have made the world better merely by being a better teacher. This would allow humans to makes educated choices by better understanding the world around us and how it can help or hurt us. I used diseases as one example, though the Charger seems to think God teaching us about diseases was my point rather than an example. The Charger wrote, “The Worrywart argues that God should have taught humanity about viruses and diseases.  I argued that God gave us a world where we’re responsible for our actions and, as a result, we’re able to better understand that decisions have consequences.  The Worrywart responded that there is no connection.” The Charger doesn’t seem to understand that there still isn’t a connection. You can teach your children things about the world while they remain responsible for their actions. In fact most people would say you should teach your kids so that they can make better choices. The Charger further displays his confusion by saying, The point here is that, if we live in a world where there are no diseases or disasters, then we’re like spoiled rich kids who never really understand that our decisions do matter. I have no idea how the Charger jumped from me saying God should offer us information about how the world around us works (includes viruses and diseases) to that meaning there would be no diseases or natural disasters in the world? Teaching your child to wash their hands after they sneeze does not magically remove the possibility of them getting sick or their personal responsibility to wash their hands themselves but it does give them information that helps them understand why they should make certain choices, in this case to wash their hands. A good God would have to be a good teacher and the Charger’s God is not a good teacher.
The Charger tries to show his God was a good teacher when it comes to diseases and viruses by giving God credit for providing the Jewish dietary laws. First, I pointed out that for a Christian the Jewish dietary laws are of no value since Christians do not keep them and historically they never have. I also noted that these laws were given to fairly small group of people calling into question God’s desire to teach all of humanity. The Charger tries to get around the first part about Christians rejecting the law saying Paul meant the law was simply no longer a way to be spiritually justified. Even if that were true it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t matter why the church stopped obeying the dietary laws the point is that the church did stop obeying them and they taught people not to follow those laws. So for the Charger to try and use those laws as a way God intended to help teach the world about a healthy diet just does not work from a Christian perspective. To deal with how limited God’s concern for humanity seemed the Charger then proceeded to give God credit for any and all dietary laws or customs from multiple cultures and religions around the world that seemed in any way beneficial to human health. He referenced Islam, Hinduism and Jainism. He says, “One could argue that God provided all cultures with a good idea of what actions, foods and laws should be followed.” This argument seems fairly desperate. I am now supposed to think it is rational to believe that anything and everything found in other religions that is beneficial to human health was put there by the Charger’s God?  This seeks to give the Charger’s God credit where credit is not due. One would have to ask the individuals of each of those religions and cultures why they have the customs they have and one will find that Hindus, Buddhists and Jains do not give credit to the God of Abraham. Now if the Charger wants to say it was still his God who “inspired” these customs one must again question his God’s ability to communicate and his actual desire to teach since these people seem to have no clue who this God is. And then no matter how valuable any of those customs were to people’s health the Charger’s God remains a bad teacher in that he never taught anyone the actual way diseases function and why one would want to do certain things and not others. A teacher who explains why one should do something along with what one should do is a far better teacher than the one who only provides what one should do. Again disease was merely an example I used to make this point. One could throw in many more examples to question the Charger’s God as a teacher such as why God did not aid humanity in learning how to farm, domesticate animals, write, forge metal, or numerous other things that have helped humanity as they discovered them but which in the overall scope of humanity’s existence have only been discovered/invented very recently.
The Charger says at this point, “The Worrywart finally drops into a long litany of anti-Christian comments that have absolutely no bearing on this discussion.” This again displays a misunderstanding on the Chargers part. This entire section in my piece was about God’s willingness and ability (or unwillingness and inability as it were) to teach people and how teaching people more about the world would in no way impede their free will. So my last paragraph in that section continues with this issue discussing God’s desire and effectiveness at teaching humanity by specifically looking at history. I said:
Really few things expose the Christian God’s inability or unwillingness to communicate and teach as clearly as the bible. The fact is humanity (homo sapiens) have existed for 180,000 to 200,000 years but this God remained silent until about 3,000 years ago when he started to give some limited (and mostly inaccurate) information to a few individuals, which were meant to be restricted to a very small group of people. Slowly the various messages (often contradictory) spread as more and more writings got “inspired.” Still over-all God’s form of communication (scripture) was segregated to a very small portion of the world. It seems fairly clear that God simply had no desire to teach anyone in China, Japan, India, Korea, Australia, the Pacific Islands, a majority of Africa, North America or South America. This God still has not gotten his bible to everyone on this planet. Honestly how seriously can anyone take this God’s claim to care about everyone? Beyond this terribly long wait for God to speak one also finds that God is fairly inept when it comes to actually making what he means clear. Wars are constantly waged over the meaning of his words. Numerous books with conflicting messages are written that claim to be inspired by him. Religions split, various sects are formed and numerous denominations are created over God’s obvious lack of clarity. So now this God has left us 3 branches of Judaism, 2 sects in Islam and around 38,000 denominations in Christianity. Truly could anything be clearer then the fact that this God is amazingly unclear about what he wants and what we should know. It really is astonishing that those who believe in the bible thinks it serves as a positive witness to God’s desire to communicate with humanity when it is so painfully obvious that it exposes the exact opposite about their God.
This paragraph is vital to my critic of the Charger’s God who by merely being a better teacher could have reduced the amount of human suffering throughout history. The Charger believes his God has taught things to the world through scripture and so he turns to the bible to argue what his God wills or teaches. But if the bible is God’s word to humanity one must then question how well was it written, how effective has it been in spreading accurate knowledge and how accessible has it been to a majority of humanity? I am calling into question the Christian scripture’s effectiveness, accuracy and accessibility all of which have very obvious connections to my point. And the theists inability to agree on what their God says/teaches along with the numerous scientific errors that fill their scripture only strengths my accusation that their God is either unwilling or unable to teach humanity about the world in which we live and about things that would greatly reduce human suffering the way a good God would desire.
God’s Responsibility
In this section I continued to argue that God bears part of the responsibility for the poor choices humanity has made with the free will he gave them especially knowing what they would do with it. I mention how no human parent receives the free pass from bearing any responsibility for their children’s mistakes that the Charger is handing to his God. He does not respond to this point rather he merely address one example I gave about parents stopping their kids from running out into the street where he again misses the point of the example. The point is there is a difference between being able to make a decision and actualizing a decision and one can bear the responsibility of making a poor choice even if they were unable to actualize that choice. So God could have maintained our libertarian free will without allowing all the horrors and suffering that have occurred in human history.
The Value of Free Will
The main issue here is that the Charger and I disagree upon the ultimate value of free will and how free will can be defined.
First I pointed out that not being able to make “evil” choices would not end humanity’s free will rather there would simply be certain choices no longer to be made. Choosing to sin would become like choosing to breathe underwater or fly, one simply would not be able to do it. Again this would not destroy a person’s free will because it would not be taking away all the decision a person could make. The Charger disagrees he says, “libertarian free will says that person X always has the ability to choose from multiple alternatives.  The idea is that nothing is determined.  So in every situation, X has the ability to choose from several options.  Obviously, the opposite of libertarian free will is determinism, which asserts that every decision is determined based on something else.  Thus, the Worrywart is completely wrong—without free will, every action is predetermined.” The Charger again confuses what I said. I did not say we would not have free will but again that only certain choices would no longer be possible. There would still be multiple alternatives and several options for people to choose from it would just mean certain outcomes would no longer be possible.
Basically the Charger wants a certain type of libertarian (incompatiblism) free will, which is fine and he notes the opposite of that would be determinism but what he does not mention is the fact that those are not the only two choices. Many philosophers, theologians and theists do not believe in incompatiblist theories of free will but rather in compatiblist theories of free will which find more ways to reconcile the conflicts between free will and determinism. The Charger’s asserts that, “without free will (as mentioned above), every decision is meaningless to them.  You have no real decisions.” And this assertion is simply false and many theists would agree with me on that point.
Also if the Charger wants to maintain his argument then he would need to address the fact that as a Christian theist by believing in scripture and the Christian story he in fact affirms that many things have been predetermined and that no matter how many free choices he makes the overall story of history has already been written, which he cannot affect or change.
At the end of this section I also said that all people don’t have the same amount of “free will” though I clearly noted that by that I mean freedoms. If a person is illiterate they cannot choose to read a book. If a person is in a cage they cannot choose to go for a walk. If a person lives in ancient Rome they cannot choose to fly on an airplane. And if a person lived before Jesus they could not choose to become Christians. So yes the amount of freedoms a person has and thus the amount of choices they can make does vary from person to person and culture to culture. The Charger’s denial of this does not change the fact that he, like myself, has had far more freedoms and thus choices then a majority of the people who has ever existed on this planet and that his beliefs have been affected as much by when and where he was born as any personal choice he has made.
Jesus’ Death 
This section remains pointless I only bring it up for one reason which is to correct an error the Charger made where he claimed I said something that I, in fact did not say. The Charger writes, “The Worrywart asserts that this section is theological and that I have never proven that Christ was raised from the dead.” I did say this section was theological but I never said that the Charger hadn’t proven Christ was raised from the dead. I never even said that he had to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. All I said was that it was premature to get into this topic (resurrection/atonement) at this time. Where the Charger got this idea I do not know but the fact is I didn’t say it and this topic still doesn’t matter.
Animal Suffering and Natural Evils
This section seems to continue to be one the Charger simply cannot get a handle on. The Charger continues to think he can claim human rebellion as the cause of animal suffering and natural disasters. This doesn’t work for two reasons. First there remains no logical or necessary connection between evil moral choices made by humans and animal suffering or natural disasters. Second the natural history of the planet makes that connection impossible. The story of Adam and Eve is obviously a myth not an account of what literally happened on this earth. As I wrote in my last piece, “The earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old (not 6,000 years like Genesis says) while modern humans (homo sapiens) are around 180,000 years old. Earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, and all of forms of natural evils were happening long before human beings ever existed. Likewise animals were hurting and killing one another before we ever came along so the story of the Garden provides the theist (Christian theist) nothing for answering these questions.” The point is that animal suffering and natural disasters were occurring long before any human beings existed making any connection between those things and human action impossible.
The Charger also makes an odd comment on animal suffering. He says, “almost all animal suffering is in a category of its own.  Think about it—for every deer that’s killed, there’s a very happy mountain lion or wolf.  (It’s almost like fans of opposing teams who pray that the other team will lose.) The deer “prays” every night that a nice plant awaits its consumption, while the mountain lion “prays” for a large plump deer.  Logically speaking, for every animal that is killed by another animal, there is enough survival made up from the predator that, in the big picture, the equation comes out as zero.  This makes absolutely no sense. The “happiness” of one animal does not negate the suffering of another like some math equation any more than the “happiness” of a rapist negates the suffering of the victim who was raped or the “joy” of a robber negates the suffering of the victim who was robbed. Further there are animals that suffer that provide no “happiness” to some other animal, like a fawn dying in a forest fire or a baby bird falling out of its nest. Suffering in the animal category is no different than in the human category though in Western history we tend to care less about animals then in the East.
Then continuing with the category of natural evil the Charger seems to remain confused. Natural evil is a term that has been used historically just to describe natural events that occur that end up causing suffering. These were events that for a majority of history were directly connected to the hand of God. If an earthquake happened it was because God literally caused it to happen. The question then became why did he cause it to happen? Most people do not look at natural disasters like this anymore, as directly connected to the hand of God. But the issue remains basically the same. If God created the world he either causes or allows these events to happen, which create great damage and suffering so why does he do that? What moral decision that a person makes requires an earthquake as a response? What did Japan do to warrant the tsunami it received? We know now, thanks to science (not God), why these events actually happen and how they have shaped the earth and we know they were happening a long time before humans or any life existed on this earth so once again the Charger’s attempt to connect these events (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc) to human rebellion and the corruption of some sort of perfect earth that God created which did not have these types of events obviously fails.
The Charger just cannot seem to comprehend this and again attempts to say my acceptance of what we scientifically know about the earth and rejection of the biblical account of Genesis creates a straw-man fallacy. I truly don’t think the Charger understands what a straw-man argument actually is based on how he continues to use the term nor does he seem willing to acknowledge how many theistic philosophers accept science over scripture in this case. (Click here to read a great essay by Michael Shermer that displays how ridiculous the Genesis account of creation is when taken literally with what we know scientifically)
This section is obviously one, similar to the section on the evidential problem of evil, where the Charger just has no legitimate answers to the actual problems being presented and thus it remains one of his weakest sections.
IV) Naturalism and Good and Evil
Like many of the previous sections this is one where the Charger and I simply disagree. His understanding of naturalism is clearly limited. One does not need a God in order to support morality. In fact it can be argued that theism is in fact the weaker of the two systems when it comes to propagating a good morality.
I have written about the issue of morality without God and one can read that here. I have also posted a few other essays by philosophers dealing with that same issue. Here is one written by Elizabeth Anderson who explores the issue of morality within a naturalist system. She astutely observes that the main objection to naturalism from religious believers is not scientific but rather moral. The fact is that scientifically speaking the evidence for God’s existence is little to non-existent so it is in fact this moral objection that is of utmost value for the theist. If they can prove morality is impossible without God they at least have a reason to continue to believe in their God even if there are no other scientific or rational reasons for their belief. In this essay Anderson addresses this “moralistic argument” by theists and demonstrates its weaknesses particularly given the historical evidence we have. Here is another essay written by philosopher Kai Nielsen who likewise deals with the issue of morality without God. He demonstrates that morality cannot in fact be based in religion. For whether God exists or not an individual’s sense of right and wrong must always logically precede that individual’s religious beliefs. Basically one cannot argue God is good without first already having some standard of what is good by which to make this claim. As Nielsen puts it, “A moral understanding must be logically prior to any religious assent.” Nielsen’s essay is fairly long and involved dealing with the multiple rejections to his assertions and should be read on its own to be fully understood and appreciated.
To me the fact is that the theist’s moral objection to naturalism exposes more moral shortcomings of theism than naturalism. What I love about the naturalist system is it allows one to value humanity first and base one’s morality upon human worth. In the theistic system some version of an all-powerful God (yes it’s always changing) is not only the source of morality but apparently the only reason to be moral. The Charger cannot understand why one would not rape a 13 year old girl if God did not exist and I cannot help but wonder why the Charger needs some sort of invisible being to bribe/threaten him in order not to rape a 13 year old girl? (The Charger made a claim that naturalism as a system would view an act of rape as good. This again demonstrates the Charger’s lack of understanding of naturalism as naturalism does not imply, support or call for that action) The fact remains that the theist seems to concede based on their own objections to naturalism that without their God and his bribe of heaven and threat of hell they would chose to harm others without remorse. And history shows us that even with their God (often because of him) they still frequently chose to harm others without remorse.
Moral ambiguity becomes an even bigger problem when one examines one of the Charger’s main claims when dealing with the problem of evil; he argued “there must be some greater good humanity cannot see or understand behind human suffering.” If this statement is true than the Charger cannot even confirm whether we should or should not help those who suffer. Should we aid the victims of the tsunami in Japan? According to the Charger’s assertion the tsunami must be the source of some greater good but that means if we help those who are suffering we could be interfering with that “greater good” and would limit the value of their suffering. One could even argue that we should in fact cause others to suffer as it would have to bring about “greater goods.” The logical possibility of a greater good behind suffering can become nothing more than a reason to be immoral and uncaring.
Another problem with basing morality upon God is that the Charger and every other theist does not and cannot know what the will of their God actually is as history has proven. Thus even if their God were necessary for morality (he isn’t) he would remain useless. The theists only have conflicting scriptures that can be and have been interpreted in thousands of different ways to mean thousands of different things along with their own personal feelings about what God is telling them as individuals all of which leads to conflicting and often immoral messages. History exposes the theist’s God for what he is when it comes being a source of morality; worthless.
So while the Charger seems not to understand why I care about the suffering of others without his God (basically without being bribed or threatened) I can tell him that I do care and that it is a lot easier to care now that I don’t have to worry about what his God wants rather than about what is right. The theist, unlike the naturalist, must always worry about their God’s will over the actual needs and worth of other people. If their God says kill the theist must kill while the naturalist can decide whether the action is truly right. At some point every theist must decide what is more important to them being a good person or being a good theist (Christian/Muslim/Jew) because the fact is that the two are not always the same and one does not necessarily include the other as history can easily show us. The naturalist has the ability to seek being a good person first and foremost while the theist must seek to be a good theist and then assume (hope) that makes them a good person. The fact is I cannot pretend to respect a God who can and has made any act morally good and cares more about his own self-glorification than the well being of the majority of humans who have every existed. It was not until I rejected God that I gained the freedom to try and do what was actually right in every situation rather than merely what God wanted.
One does not need any sort of God to support or maintain morality. This can be shown true both logically and historically. Nor does one need some invisible and silent deity in order to care about the other people on this planet. The fact is naturalism is by far more rational than theism scientifically speaking and unlike what theists’ claim it is not lacking when it comes to being a foundation for morality. At the end of the day the theist needs someone to tell them to care about other people and if that someone is not there then they by their own arguments admit they would not care and would do nothing more than whatever seemed to serve their own best interest at the moment. The theist may not understand why a naturalist chooses to do what is right without God but sadly the naturalist fully understands the reason the theist chose to do what is right (or often wrong), it’s because they believe they were “told” to.  
As I said in the beginning, when looking at the overall path of this dialog between the Charger and I it has not ended up being as helpful a piece for those interested in exploring the Problem of Evil as I had originally hoped. Far less was actually discussed than I expected when this conversation begun. Due to multiple false assumptions, misunderstood arguments and simple avoidance of the actual problems the Charger and I were unable to cover much ground in our attempt to deal with the Problem of Evil.  The Charger began his last conclusion saying “I believe that I have answered all of the Worrywart’s objections.  His arguments have caused me a lot of thought—and caused me to grow intellectually.  However, I believe that the Worrywart’s two arguments have been defeated.” And while I’m glad he said some of what I wrote caused him to think I still have no clue why he feels he answered all my objections or “defeated” my two arguments. First because I had more than two arguments and second because the only argument he actually dealt with directly and fully was the logical problem of evil. He continued to either misunderstand or avoid the evidential problem of evil and never actually dealt with my objections to and the overall weaknesses of his various theodicies.
The Charger’s responses in this discussion have provided no rational reason to believe in his God rather all they have provided are stop-gap arguments (logically possibilities) to protect a preexisting belief in his deity. Further, despite what the Charger claims the Problem of Evil is not merely a rational problem that can be limited to deductive games of logic. Until one is willing to step down out of the clouds and place themselves in the shoes of actual human beings who are going through (or went through) true horrors and pain and listen to their ideas as to why we are here and what the meaning behind suffering is than one cannot pretend to have actually dealt with or even really pondered the Problem of Evil. One must spend a day in the life of a Japanese woman in the Nara period; or as a man in the Sudra caste in 18th century India; or as a Jew exiled from England in the 13th century or blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century; or as a West African riding on a Spanish slave ship across the Atlantic Ocean after being sold into slavery by fellow African dealers before one can offer any answer to the Problem of Evil. One must also deal with the religious and philosophical traditions of other cultures and time periods that address issues of suffering. One must examine Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching and his teachings on the perfect individual; or the Upanishads investigation into human consciousness; or Buddhism’s four noble truths, which all deal directly with suffering. The Western theist cannot ignore these systems of thought or the lives of the people who lived in those systems and then pretend to have dealt with the Problem of Evil. If one examines the things these people experienced and likely believed as well as the things that they most certainly did not (and could not) believe and place them next to the Charger’s God I believe one finds a fairly limited God who cannot rationally be described as “all-good.”
The point is the theist ultimately has no answer to the problem of evil beyond what is “logically possible.” They always begin with some sort of rational justification for their beliefs but always end up with a call for faith. “We can’t understand everything so we need to just trust God.” Of course the God they want us to trust is the one who promises to save them while destroying the majority of the rest of us. I guess it makes sense why most theists will not question their God because why question the rationality or morality of a being who promises to give you heaven no matter how many people he sends to hell? In faith the Charger says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.”  (Job 19:25)  This is a faith claim that I once shared and believed and as a faith claim it is certainly not something I can argue against but for me the ultimate problem remains that what he is affirming, and what I used to affirm, is that "his" (previously mine) Redeemer lives. And I cannot ignore what seems to me the inherent selfishness and heartlessness that is built into that statement. At the end of the day the theist is willing to trust that there is a good reason for all the suffering, both temporal and eternal, that people go through because eventually they get compensated for their pains while the rest of us receive endless torment unequal to any crime we could have committed.
Now theism will always maintain certain advantages over naturalism that no amount of reason can deal with. Humanity’s fear of death remains one of the greatest motivations for being a theist as well as human tendencies to exclusivism but that does not make the Charger’s God a rational probability or a moral necessity. Instead the Charger’s God remains only a logical possibility who prefers illogical faith to rational acceptance and who is obviously filled with moral deficiencies.
With that said I still want to thank the Charger for taking the time to dialog with me. It certainly forced me to put more time into researching this topic than I had done in the last few years since I walked away from my Christian faith and that introduced me to some great new ideas from both sides of this debate.
For those interested in better sources dealing with the Problem of Evil here is a link that provides access to a website containing multiple essays, articles and debates (both current and historical) concerning the Problem of Evil and various theodicies. I have used some of these essays in my arguments but there are many more sources here that I have yet to read. I have found it to be a great site to find sources written from both perspectives (naturalist and theist) on this topic. This website also has material that deals with issues like Faith vs. Reason, Separation of Church and State, Arguments for the Existence of God, Morality/Ethics and so on.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kai Nielsen-Morality and the Will of God

Kai Nielsen is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. He was educated at Duke University and has taught at New York University, Amherst College, University of Ottawa and Brooklyn College. He has been the editor of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy and has lectured extensively in Europe and Africa. His books include: Reason and Practice (1971); Contemporary Critiques of Religion (1971); Scepticism (1973); and Ethics without God (1973), from which this selection is taken.

This selection deals directly with the issue of whether religion (the existence of God) is a necessary foundation for morality.

It is the claim of many influential Jewish and Christian theologians (Brunner, Buber, Barth, Niebuhr and Bultmann--to take outstanding examples) that the only genuine basis for morality is in religion. And any old religion is not good enough. The only truly adequate foundation for moral belief is a religion that acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of the Lord found in the prophetic religions.
These theologians will readily grant what is plainly true, namely, that as a matter of fact many non-religious people behave morally, but they contend that without a belief in God and his law there is no ground or reason for being moral. The sense of moral relativism, skepticism and nihilism rampant in our age is due in large measure to the general weakening of religious belief in an age of science. Without God there can be no objective foundation for our moral beliefs. As Brunner puts it, [endnote 1] 'The believer alone clearly perceives that the Good, as it is recognized in faith, is the sole Good, and all that is otherwise called good cannot lay claim to this title, at least in the ultimate sense of the word . . . The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.'
Moreover, this moral Good can only be attained by our 'unconditional obedience' to God, the ground of our being. Without God life would have no point and morality would have no basis. Without religious belief, without the Living God, there could be no adequate answer to the persistently gnawing questions: What ought we to do? How ought I to live?
Is this frequently repeated claim justified? Are our moral beliefs and conceptions based on or grounded in a belief in the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? In trying to come to grips with this question, we need to ask ourselves three fundamental questions.
Is being willed by God the, or even a, fundamental criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or for its being something that ought to be done?
Is being willed by God the only criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or for its being something that ought to be done?
Is being willed by God the only adequate criterion for that which is so willed being morally good or being something that ought to be done?
I shall argue that the fact that God wills something--if indeed that it is a fact--cannot be a fundamental criterion for its being morally good or obligatory and thus it cannot be the only criterion or the only adequate criterion for moral goodness or obligation.
By way of preliminaries we should first get clear what is meant by a fundamental criterion. When we speak of the criterion for the goodness of an action or attitude we speak of some measure or test by virtue of which we may decide which actions or attitudes are good or desirable, or, at least, are the least undesirable of the alternate actions or attitudes open to us. A moral criterion is the measure we use for determining the value or worth of an action, principle, rule or attitude. We have such a measure or test when we have some generally relevant considerations by which we may decide whether something is whatever it is said to be. A fundamental moral criterion is (a) a test or measure used to judge the legitimacy of moral rules and/or acts or attitudes, and (b) a measure that one would give up last if one were reasoning morally. (In reality, there probably is no single fundamental criterion, although there are fundamental criteria.)
There is a further preliminary matter we need to consider. In asking about the basis or authority for our moral beliefs we are not asking about how we came to have them. If you ask someone where he got his moral beliefs, he, to be realistic, should answer that he got them from his parents, parent surrogates, teachers. [endnote 2] They are beliefs which he has been conditioned to accept. But the validity or soundness of a belief is independent of its origin. When one person naïvely asks another where he got his moral beliefs, most likely he is not asking how he came by them, but rather, (a) on what authority he holds these beliefs, or (b) what good reasons or justification he has for these moral beliefs. He should answer that he does not and cannot hold these beliefs on any authority. It is indeed true that many of us turn to people for moral advice and guidance in moral matters, but if we do what we do simply because it has been authorized, we cannot be reasoning and acting as moral agents; for to respond as a moral agent, one's moral principle must be something which is subscribed to by one's own deliberate commitment, and it must be something for which one is prepared to give reasons.
Keeping these preliminary clarifications in mind, we can return to my claim that the fact (if indeed it is a fact) that God has commanded, willed or ordained something cannot, in the very nature of the case, be a fundamental criterion for claiming that whatever is commanded, willed or ordained ought to be done.
Some perceptive remarks made by A. C. Ewing will carry us part of the way. [endnote 3] Theologians like Barth and Brunner claim that ethical principles gain their justification because they are God's decrees. But as Ewing points out, if 'being obligatory' means just 'willed by God', it becomes unintelligible to ask why God wills one thing rather than another. In fact, there can be no reason for his willing one thing rather than another for his willing it eo ipso makes whatever it is he wills good, right or obligatory. 'God wills it because it ought to be done' becomes 'God wills it because God wills it'; but the first sentence, even as used by the most ardent believer, is not a tautology. 'If it were said in reply that God's commands determine what we ought to do but that these commands were only issued because it was good that they should be or because obedience to them did good, this would still make judgments about the good, at least, independent of the will of mental ethical concepts in terms of God or made ethics dependent on God.'[endnote 4]  Furthermore, it becomes senseless to say what the believer very much wants to say, namely, 'I ought always to do what God wills' if 'what I ought to do' and 'what God wills' have the same meaning. And to say I ought to do what God wills because I love God makes the independent assumption that I ought to love God and that I ought to do what God wills if I love him.
Suppose we say instead that we ought to do what God wills because God will punish us if we do not obey him. This may indeed be a cogent self-interested or prudential reason for doing what God commands, but it is hardly a morally good reason for doing what he commands since such considerations of self-interest cannot be an adequate basis for morality. A powerful being--an omnipotent and omniscient being—speaking out of the whirlwind cannot by his mere commands create an obligation. Ewing goes on to assert: 'Without a prior conception of God as good or his commands as right, God would have no more claim on our obedience than Hitler or Stalin except that he would have more power than even they had to make things uncomfortable for those who disobey him.'[endnote 5] Unless we assume that God is morally perfect, unless we assume the perfect goodness of God, there can be no necessary 'relation between being commanded or willed by God and being obligatory or good'. [endnote 6]
To this it is perfectly correct to reply that as believers we must believe that God is wholly and completely good, the most perfect of all conceivable beings. [endnote 7] It is not open for a Jew or a Christian to question the goodness of God. He must start with that assumption. Any man who seriously questions God's goodness or asks why he should obey God's commands shows by this very response that he is not a Jew or a Christian. Believers must claim that God is wholly and utterly good and that what he wills or commands is of necessity good, though this does not entail that the believer is claiming that the necessity here is a logical necessity. For a believer, God is all good; he is the perfect good. This being so, it would seem that the believer is justified in saying that he and we--if his claim concerning God is correct--ought to do what God wills and that our morality is after all grounded in a belief in God. But this claim of his is clearly dependent on his assumption that God is good. Yet I shall argue that even if God is good, indeed, even if God is the perfect good, it does not follow that morality can be based on religion and that we can know what we ought to do simply by knowing what God wishes us to do.
To come to understand the grounds or this last rather elliptical claim, we must consider the logical status of 'God is good.' Is it a non-analytic and in some way substantive claim, or is it analytic? (Can we say that it is neither?) No matter what we say, we get into difficulties.
Let us first try to claim that it is non-analytic, that it is in some way a substantive statement. So understood, God cannot then be by definition good. If the statement is synthetic and substantive, its denial cannot be self-contradictory; that is, it cannot be self-contradictory to assert that X is God but X is not good. It would always in fact be wrong to assert this, for God is the perfect good, but the denial of this claim is not self-contradictory, it is just false or in some way mistaken. The 'is' in 'God is the perfect good' is not the 'is' of identity, perfect goodness is being predicated of God in some logically contingent way. It is the religious experience of the believer and the events recorded in the Bible that lead the believer to the steadfast conviction that God has a purpose or vocation for him which he can fulfill only by completely submitting to God's will. God shall lead him and guide him in every thought, word and deed. Otherwise he will be like a man shipwrecked, lost in a vast and indifferent universe. Through careful attention to the Bible, he comes to understand that God is a wholly good being who has dealt faithfully with his chosen people. God is not by definition perfectly good or even good, but in reality, though not of logical necessity, he never falls short of perfection.
Assuming that 'God is good' is not a truth of language, how, then, do we know that God is good? Do we know or have good grounds for believing that the remarks made at the end of the above paragraph are so? The believer can indeed make such a claim, but how do we or how does he know that this is so? What grounds have we for believing that God is good? Naïve people, recalling how God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind may say that God is good because he is omnipotent and omniscient. But this clearly will not do, for as Hepburn points out, there is nothing logically improper about saying 'X is omnipotent and omniscient and morally wicked.'[endnote 8] Surely in the world as we know it there is no logical connection between being powerful and knowledgeable and being good. As far as I can see, all that God proved to Job when he spoke to him out of the whirlwind was that God was an immeasurably powerful being; but he did not prove his moral superiority to Job and he did nothing at all even to exhibit his moral goodness. (One might even argue that he exhibited moral wickedness.) We need not assume that omnipotence and omniscience bring with them goodness or even wisdom.
What other reason could we have for claiming that God is good? We might say that he is good because he tells us to do good in thought, word and deed and to love one another. In short, in his life and in his precepts God exhibits for us his goodness and love. Now one might argue that children's hospitals and concentration camps clearly show that such a claim is false. But let us assume that in some way God does exhibit his goodness to man. Let us assume that if we examine God's works we cannot but affirm but that is good. [endnote 9] We come to understand that he is not cruel, callous or indifferent. But in order to make such judgments or to gain such an understanding, we must use our own logically independent moral criteria. In taking God's goodness as not being true by definition or as being some kind of conceptual truth, we have, in asserting 'God is good', of necessity made a mortal judgment, a moral appraisal, using a criterion that cannot be based on a knowledge that God exist or that he issues commands. We call God good because we have experienced the goodness of his acts, but in order to do this, in order to know that he is good or to have any grounds for believing that he is good, we must have an independent moral criterion which we use in making this prediction of God. So if 'God id good' is taken to be synthetic and substantive, then morality cannot simply be based on a belief in God. We must of logical necessity have some criterion of goodness that is not derived from any statement asserting that there is a deity.
Let us alternatively, and more plausibly, take 'God is good' to be a truth of language. Now some truths of language (some analytic statements) are statements of identity, such as 'puppies are young dogs' or 'a father is a male parent.' Such statements are definitions and the 'is' indicates identity. But 'God is good' is clearly not such a statement of identity, for that 'God' does not have the same meaning as 'good' can easily be seen from the following case: Jane says to Betsy, after Betsy helps an old lady across the street, 'That was good of you.' 'That was good of you' most certainly does not mean 'that was God of you.' And when we say 'conscientiousness is good' we do not mean to say 'conscientiousness is God.' To say, as a believer does, that God is good is not to say that God is God. This clearly indicates that the word God does not have the same meaning as the word good. When we are talking about God we are not talking simply about morality.
'God is the perfect good' is somewhat closer to 'a father is a male parent', but even here 'God' and 'the perfect good' are not identical in meaning. “God is the perfect good” in some important respects is like 'a triangle is a trilateral.' Though something is a triangle if and only if it is a trilateral, it does not follow that 'triangle' and 'trilateral' have the same meaning. Similarly, something is God if and only if that something is the perfect good, but it does not follow that 'God' and 'the perfect good' have the same meaning. When we speak of God we wish to say other things about him as well, though indeed what is true of God will also be true of the perfect good. Yet what is true of the evening star will also be true of the morning star since they both refer to the same object, namely Venus, but, as Frege has shown, it does not follow that the two terms have the same meaning if they have the same referent.
Even if it could be made out that 'God is the perfect good' is in some way a statement of identity, (a) it would not make 'God is good' a statement of identity, and (b) we could know that X is the perfect good only if we already knew how to decide that X is good. [endnote 10] So even on the assumption that 'God is the perfect good' is a statement of identity, we need an independent way of deciding whether something is good; we must have an independent criterion for goodness.
Surely the alternative presently under consideration is more plausible than the alternative considered in section 3. 'God is good' most certainly appears to be analytic in the way 'puppies are young', 'a bachelor is unmarried' or 'unjustified killing is wrong' are analytic. These statements are not statements of identity; they are not definitions, though they all follow from definitions and to deny any of them is self-contradictory.
In short, it seems to me correct to maintain that 'God is good', 'puppies are young' and 'triangles are three-sided' are all truths of language; the predicates partially define their subjects. That is to say--to adopt for a moment a Platonic sounding idiom--goodness is partially definitive of Godhood, as youngness is partially definitive of puppyhood and as three-sidedness is partially definitive of triangularity.
To accept this is not at all to claim that we can have no understanding of good without an understanding of God; and the truth of the above claim that God is good will not show that God is the, or even a, fundamental criterion for goodness. Let us establish first that and then how the fact of such truths of language does not show that we could have no understanding of good without having an understanding of God. We could not understand the full religious sense of what is meant by God without knowing that whatever is denoted by this term is said to be good; but, as 'young' or 'three-sided' are understood without reference to puppies or triangles though the converse cannot be the case, so 'good' is also understood quite independently of any reference to God. We can intelligibly say, 'I have a three-sided figure here that is most certainly not a triangle' and 'colts are young but they are not puppies.' Similarly, we can well say 'conscientiousness, under most circumstances at least, is good even in a world without God.' Such an utterance is clearly intelligible, to believer and non-believer alike. It is a well-formed English sentence with a use in the language. Here we can use the word good without either asserting or assuming the reality of God. Such linguistic evidence clearly shows that good is a concept which can be understood quite independently of any reference to the deity, that morality without religion, without theism, is quite possible. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Christianity, Judaism and theistic religions of that sort could not exist if people did not have a moral understanding that was, logically speaking, quite independent of such religions. We could have no understanding of the truth of 'God is good' or of the concept God unless we had an independent understanding of goodness.
That this is so can be seen from the following considerations. If we had no understanding of the word young, and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a dog was young, we could not know how correctly to apply the word puppy. Without such a prior understanding of what it is to be young, we could not understand the sentence 'puppies are young.' Similarly, if we had no understanding of the use of the word good, and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a being (or if you will, a power or a force) was good, we could not know how correctly to apply the word God. Without such a prior understanding of goodness, we could not understand the sentence 'God is good.' This clearly shows that out understanding of morality and knowledge of goodness are independently of any knowledge that we may or may not have of the divine. Indeed, without a prior and logically independent understanding of good and without some non-religious criterion for judging something to be good, the religious person could have no knowledge of God, for he could not know whether that powerful being who spoke out of the whirlwind and laid the foundations of the earth was in fact worthy of worship and perfectly good.
From my argument we should conclude that we cannot decide whether something is good or whether it ought to be done simply from finding out (assuming that we can find out) that God commanded it, willed it, enjoined it. Furthermore, whether 'God is good' is synthetic (substantive) or analytic (a truth of language), the concept of good must be understood  as something distinct from the concept of God; that is to say, a man could know how to use 'good' properly and still not know how to use 'God'. Conversely, a man could not know how to use 'God' correctly unless he already understood how to use 'good'. An understanding of goodness is logically prior to, and is independent of, any understanding or acknowledgment of God.
In attempting to counter my argument for the necessary independence of morality--including a central facet of religious morality--from any beliefs about the existence or powers of the deity, the religious moralist might begin by conceding that (1) there are secular moralities that are logically independent of religion, and (2) that we must understand the meanings of moral terms independently of understanding what it means to speak of God. He might even go so far as to grant that only a man who understood what good and bad were could come to believe in God. 'Good', he might grant, does not mean 'willed by God' or anything like that; and 'there is no God, but human happiness is nonetheless good' is indeed perfectly intelligible as a moral utterance. But granting that, it is still the case that Jew and Christian do and must--on pain of ceasing to be Jew or Christian--take God's will as their final court of appeal in the making of moral appraisals or judgments. Any rule, act or attitude that conflicts with what the believer sincerely believes to be the will of God must be rejected by him. It is indeed true that in making moral judgments the Jew or Christian does not always use God's will as a criterion for what is good or what ought to be done. When he says 'fluoridation is a good thing' or 'the resumption of nuclear testing is a crime', he need not be using God's will as a criterion for his moral judgment. But where any moral judgment or any other moral criterion conflicts with God's ordinances, or with what the person making the judgment honestly takes to be God's ordinances, he must accept those ordinances, or he is no longer a Jew or a Christian. This acceptance is a crucial test of his faith. In this way, God's will is his fundamental moral criterion.
That the orthodox Jew or Christian would reason in this way is perfectly true, but though he says that God's will is his fundamental criterion, it is still plain that he has a yet more fundamental criterion which he must use in order to employ God's will as a moral criterion. Such a religious moralist must believe and thus be prepared to make the moral claim that there exists a being whom he deems to be perfectly good or worthy of worship and whose will should always be obeyed. But to do this he must have a moral criterion (a standard for what is morally good) that is independent of God's will or what people believe to be God's will. In fact, the believer's moral criterion--'because it is willed by God'—is in logical dependence on some distinct criterion in virtue of which the believer judges that something is perfectly good, is worthy of worship. And in making this very crucial judgment he cannot appeal to God's will as a criterion, for, that there is a being worthy of the appellation 'God', depends in part on the above prior moral claim. Only if it is correct, can we justifiably say that there is a God.
It is crucial to keep in mind that 'a wholly good being exists who is worthy of worship' is not analytic, is not a truth of language, though 'God is wholly good' is. The former is rather a substantive moral statement (expressing a moral judgment) and a very fundamental one indeed, for the believer's whole faith rests on it. Drop this and everything goes.
It is tempting to reply to my above argument in this vein: 'but it is blasphemy to judge God; no account of the logical structure of the believer's argument can be correct if it says that the believer must judge that God is good.' Here we must beware of verbal magic and attend very carefully to precisely what  it is we are saying. I did not—and could not on pain of contradiction—say that God must be judged worthy of worship. Perfectly good; for God by definition is worthy of worship, perfectly good. I said something quite different, namely that the believer and nonbeliever  alike must decide whether there exists or could conceivably exist a force, a being (“ground of being”) that is worthy of worship or perfectly good; and I further said that in deciding this, one makes a moral judgment that can in no way be logically dependent on God’s will. Rather, the moral standard, “because it is willed by God,” is dependent for its validity on the acceptance of the claim that there is a being worthy of worship. And as our little word worthy indicates, this is unequivocally a moral judgment for believer and nonbeliever alike.
There is a rather more baroque objection [endnote 11] to my argument that (1) nothing could count as the Judaeo-Christian God unless that reality is worthy of worship, and (2) it is our own moral insight that must tell us if anything at all is or every possibly could be worthy of worship or whether there is a being who possesses perfect goodness. My conclusion from (1) and (2) was that rather than morality being based on religion, it can be seen that religion in a very fundamental sense must be based on morality. The counterargument claims that such a conclusion is premature because the judgment that something is worthy of worship is not a moral judgment; it is an evaluative judgment, a religious evaluation, but not a moral judgment. The grounds for this counterclaim are that if the judgment is a moral judgment, as I assumed, then demonolatry—the worship of evil spirits—would be self-contradictory. But although demonolatry is morally and religiously perverse, it is not self-contradictory. Hence my argument must be mistaken.
However, if we say “Z is worthy of worship” or that, given Judaeo-Christian attitudes, “if Z is what ought to be worshipped then Z must be good,” it does not follow that demonolatry is self-contradictory or incoherent. Not everyone uses language as Jews and Christians do and not everyone shares the convention of those religious groups. To say that nothing can be God, the Judaeo-Christian God, unless it is worthy of worship, and to affirm that the judgment of something as worthy of worship is a moral judgment, is not to deny that some people on some grounds could judge that what they believe to be evil spirits are worthy of worship. By definition, they could not be Jews or Christians—they show by their linguistic behavior that they do not believe in the Judaeo-Christian God who, by definition, is perfectly good. Jews and Christians recognize that believers in demonolatry do not believe in God but in evil spirits whom such Joycean characters judge to be worthy of worship. The Christian and the demonolater make different moral judgments of a very fundamental sort reflecting different views of the world.
The dialectic of our general argument about morality and divine commands should not end here. There are some further considerations which need to be brought to the forefront. Consider the theological claim that there is an infinite self-existent being, upon whom all finite realities depend for their existence, but who in turn depends on nothing. Assuming the intelligibility of the key concepts in this claim and assuming also that we know this claim to be true, it still needs to be asked how we can know, except by the use of our own moral understanding, that this infinite, self-existent being is good or is a being whose commands we ought to obey. Sine he—to talk about this being anthropomorphically by the use of personal pronouns—is powerful enough, we might decide that it would be “the better part of valour” to obey him, but this decision would not at all entail that we ought to obey him. How do we know that this being is good, except by our own moral discernment? We could not discover that this being is good or just by discovering that he “laid the foundation of the world” or “created man in his image and likeness.” No information about the behavior patterns of this being would of itself tell us that he was good, righteous or just. We ourselves would have to decide that, or, to use the misleading idiom of the ethical intuitionist, we would have to intuit or somehow come to perceive or understand that the unique ethical properties of goodness, righteousness and justness apply to this strange being or “ground of all being” that we somehow discover to exist. Only if we independently knew what we would count as good, righteous, just, would we be in a position to know whether this being is good or whether his commands ought to be obeyed. That most Christians most of the time unquestionably assume that he is good only proves that this judgment is for them a fundamental moral judgment. But this should hardly be news.
At this point it is natural to reply: “Still, we would not even call this being God unless he was thought to be good. God, whatever else he may or may not be, in a fitting or proper object of worship.” A person arguing thus might continue: “This is really a material mode statement about the use of the word God; that is to say, we would not call Z God unless that Z were a fitting or proper object of worship or a being that ought to be worshipped. And if we say ‘Z is a fitting object of worship’ or ‘Z ought to be worshipped,’ we must also be prepared to say ‘Z is good.’ Z could not be one without being the other; and if Z is a fitting object of worship, Z necessarily is a being we would call God. Thus, if Z is called God, then Z must also of necessity be called good since in Judaeo-Christian contexts what ought to be worshipped must also be good. (This is a logical remark about the use of the phrase ‘ought to be worshipped’ in Judaeo-Christian contexts.) God, by definition, is good. Though the word God is not equivalent to the word good, we would not call a being or power God unless that being was thought to be good.”
The above point is well taken, but it still remains the case that the believer has not derived a moral claim from a nonmoral religious one. Rather, he has only indicated that the word God, like the words Spirit, Santa Clause, Honky,…is not a purely descriptive term. God, like Saint, and so forth, has an evaluative force; it expresses a pro-attitude on the part of the believer and does not just designate or even describe a necessary being or transcendent power or immanent force. Such a believer—unlike Schopenhauer—means by God something toward which he has an appropriate pro-attitude; employing this word with its usual evaluative force, he could not say, “God commands it but it is really evil to do it.” If, on the other hand, we simply think of what is purportedly designated or described by the word God—the descriptive force of the word—we can say, for example, without paradox, “an objective power commands it but it is evil to do it.” By simply considering the reality allegedly denoted by the word God, we cannot discover whether this “reality” is good. If we simply let Z stand for this reality, we can always ask, “Is it good?” This is never a self-answering question in the way it is if we ask, “Is murder evil?” Take away the evaluative force of the word God and you have no ground for claiming that it must be the case that God is good; to make this claim, with our admittedly fallible moral understanding, we must decide if this Z is good.
“But”—it will be countered—“you have missed the significance of the very point you have just made. As you say yourself, God is not just a descriptive word and God-sentences are not by any means used with a purely descriptive aim. God normally has an evaluative use and God-sentences have a directive force. You cannot begin to understand them if you do not take this into consideration. You cannot just consider what Z designates or purports to designate.”
My reply to this is that we can and must if we are going to attain clarity in these matters. Certain crucial and basic sentences like “God created the Heavens and earth” and “God is in Christ,” are by no means just moral or practical utterances, and they would not have the evaluative force they do if it were not thought that in some strange way they described a mysterious objective power. The religious quest is a quest to find a Z such that Z is worthy of worship. This being the case, the evaluative force of the words and of the utterance is dependent on the descriptive force. How else but by our own moral judgment that Z is a being worthy to be worshipped are we enabled to call this Z “my Lord and my God”? Christians say there is a Z such that Z should be worshipped. Nonbelievers deny this or remain skeptical. Findlay [endnote 12], for example, points out that this atheism is in part moral because he does not believe that there can possibly be a Z such that Z is a worthy object of worship. Father Copleston [endnote 13], on the other hand, says there is a Z such that Z ought to be worshipped. This Z, Father Copleston claims, is a “necessary being” whose nonexistence is in some important sense inconceivable. But both Findlay and Copleston are using their own moral understanding in making their respective moral judgments. Neither is deriving or deducing his moral judgment from the statement “there is a Z” or from noticing or adverting to the fact—if it is a fact—that Z is “being-itself,” “a reality whose non-existence is unthinkable,” “the ground of being” or the like.
Morality cannot be based on religion. If anything, the opposite is partly true, for nothing can be God unless he or it is an object worthy of worship, and it is our own moral insight that must tell us if anything at all could possibly be worthy of worship.
It is true that if some Z is God, then, by definition, Z is an object worthy of worship. But this does not entail there is such a Z; that there is such a Z would depend both on what is the case and on what we, as individuals, judge to be worthy of worship. “God is worthy of worship” is—for most uses of God—analytic. To understand this sentence requires no insight at all but only a knowledge of English; but that there is or can be a Z such that Z is worthy of worship depends, in part at least, on the moral insight—or lack thereof—of that fallible creature that begins and ends in dust.
In her puzzling article, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” [endnote 14] Miss Anscombe has made a different sort of objection to the type of approach taken here. Moral uses of obligation statements, she argues, have no reasonable sense outside a divine-law conception of ethics. Without God, such conceptions are without sense. There was once a context, a religious way of life, in which these conceptions had a genuine application. Ought was once equated, in a relevant context, with being obliged, bound or required. This came about because of the influence of the Torah. Because of the “dominance of Christianity for many centuries the concepts of being bound, permitted or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought.” [endnote 15] But since this is no longer so unequivocally the case these conceptions have become rootless. Shorn of this theistic Divine Law, shorn of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, these conceptions can only retain a “mere mesmeric force” and cannot be “inferred from anything whatever.” [endnote 16] I think Miss Anscombe would say that I have shown nothing more than this in my above arguments. What I have said about the independence of morality from religion is quite correct for this “corrupt” age, where the basic principles of a divine-law conception of ethics appear merely as practical major premises on a par with the principle of utility and the like. In such contexts a moral ought can only have a psychological force. Without God, it can have no “discernible content,” for the conception of moral obligation “only operates in the context of law.” [endnote 17] By such moves as I have made above, I have, in effect, indicated how moral obligation now has only a delusive appearance of content. And in claiming that without God these still can be genuine moral obligations, I have manifested “a detestable desire to retain the atmosphere of the term “morally obligatory” where the term itself no longer has a genuine use.” [endnote 18] “Only if we believe in God as a law-giver can we come to believe that there is anything a man is categorically bound to do on pain of being a bad man.” [endnote 19] The concept of obligation has, without God, become a Holmesless Watson. In our present context, Miss Anscombe argues, we should, if “psychologically possible,” jettison the concepts of moral obligation, moral duty and the like and approach ethics only after we have developed a philosophical psychology which will enable us to clarify what pleasure is, what a human action is and what constitutes human virtue and distinctively “human flourishing.” [endnote 20]
I shall not be concerned here with the larger issue raised by Miss Anscombe’s paradoxical, excessively obscure, yet strangely challenging remarks. I agree, of course, that philosophical psychology is important, but I am not convinced that we have not “done” ethics and cannot profitably “do” ethics without such a philosophical psychology. I shall, however, be concerned here only to point out that Miss Anscombe has not shown us that the notion of moral obligation is unintelligible or vacuous without God and his laws.
We have already seen that if so-and-so is called a divine command or an ordinance of God, then it is obviously something that the person who behave like this it is not because you base morals on religion or on a law ought to obey, for he would not call anything a divine command or an ordinance of God unless he thought he ought to obey it. But we ourselves, by our own moral insight, must judge that such commands or promulgations are worthy of such an appellation. Yet no moral conceptions follow from a command or law as such. And this would be true at any time whatsoever. It is a logical and not a historical consideration.
Now it is true that if you believe in God in such a way as to accept God as your Lord and Master, and if you believer that something is an ordinance of God, then you ought to try to follow this ordinance. But if you believe like this it is not because you base morals on religion or on a law concept of morality, but because he who can bring himself to say “my God” uses God and cognate words evaluatively. To use such an expression is already to make a moral evaluation; the man expresses a decision, that he is morally bound to do whatever God commands. “I ought to do whatever this Z commands” is an expression of moral obligation. To believe in God, as we have already seen, involves the making of a certain value judgment; that is to say, the believer believers that there is a Z such that Z is worthy of worship. But his value judgment cannot be derived from just examining Z, or from hearing Z’s commands or laws. Without a pro-attitude on the part of the believer toward Z, without a decision by the individual concerned that Z is worthy of worship, nothing of moral kind follows. But no decision of this sort is entailed by discoveries about Z or by finding out what Z commands or wishes. It is finally up to the individual to decide that this Z is worthy of worship. That this Z ought to be worshipped, that this Z ought to be called his Lord and Master. We have here a moral use of ought that is logically prior to any law conception of ethics. The command gains obligatory force because it is judged worthy of obedience. If someone says, “I do not pretend to appraise God’s laws, I just simply accept them because God tells me to,” similar considerations obtain. This person judges that there is a Z that is a proper object of obedience. This expresses his own moral judgment, his own sense of what he is obliged to do.
A religious belief depends for its viability on our sense of good and bad—our own sense of worth—and not vice versa. It is crucial to an understanding of morality that this truth about the uses of our language be understood. Morality cannot be based on religion, and I (like Findlay) would even go so far as to deny in the name of morality that any Z whatsoever could be an object or being worthy of worship. But whether or not I am correct in this last judgment, it remains the case that each person with his own finite and fallible moral awareness must make decisions of this sort for himself. This would be so whether he was in a Hebrew-Christian tradition or in a “corrupt” and “shallow” consequentialist tradition or in any tradition whatsoever. A moral understanding must be logically prior to any religious assent.

1.      Brunner, Emil (1947), The Divine Imperative, translated by Olive Wyon, London: Lutterworth Press, chapter IX.
2.      Nowell-Smitt, P.H. (1966), “Morality: Religious and Secular” in Ramsey, Ian (ed.), Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, London: SCM Press.
3.      Ewing, A.C. (1961), “The Autonomy of Ethics” in Ramsey, Ian (ed.), Prospect for Metaphysics, London: Allen and Unwin.
4.      Ibid., p. 39.
5.      Ibid., p. 40.
6.      Ibid., p. 41
7.      See Rees, D.A. (1961), “Metaphysical Schemes and Moral Principles” in Prospect for Metaphysics, op. cit. p. 23.
8.      Hepburn, Ronald (1958), Christianity and Paradox, London: C.A. Watts, p. 132.
9.      This is surely to assume a lot.
10.  Finally we must be quite clear that X’s being good is but a necessary condition for X’s being the perfect good. But what would be a sufficient condition? Do we really know? I think we do not. We do not know how to identify the referent of “the Perfect Good.” Thus in one clear sense we do not understand what such a phrase means.
11.  This objection has been made in an unpublished paper by Professor T.P. Brown
12.  Findlay, J.N. (1955), “Can God’s Existence be Disproved?” in Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (eds.), New Essays in Philosophical Theology, New York: Macmillan Company, pp. 47-56.
13.  Russell, Bertrand and Copleston, F.C. (1957), “The Existence of God: A Debate” in Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian, London: Allen and Unwin, pp. 145-47.
14.  Anscombe, Elizabeth (January 1958), “Modern Moral Philosophy” in Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 8.
15.  Ibid., p. 5.
16.  Ibid., p. 8.
17.  Ibid., p. 18.
18.  Ibid., p. 18.
19.  Ibid., p. 6.
20.  Ibid., pp. 1, 15, 18.