Thou shalt not shalt

Atheists and theists are both able to produce many reasons for their point of view. The agnostic doesn’t dispute that, and in this sense we don’t claim that either stance is more reasonable than the other. What we do dispute, however, is that either side can a produce are set of reasons for their belief that are compelling, such that to believe otherwise is unreasonable. In the last couple of posts I’ve looked at a couple of lines often offered by atheists to support their stance, those of probable belief, and parsimony. In the interests of at least aesthetic balance, I want to spend the next two posts looking at two very popular theist cases for belief on God, and show why, although reasonable and in many ways appealing, neither is compelling.

The first case addresses morality. Our beliefs about what is right and wrong, theists claim, only make sense if we can think of right and wrong as being some objective feature of existence. So, to use the favourite example, almost everybody agrees that it’s wrong to torture children for fun. Now, if you’re a theist, we can go a step further and talk about what makes it wrong. It is wrong because it works against the very notion of goodness that is defined by the loving God of creation. To torture children is be at odds with our purpose and potential, and so there is a reference point, if you like, something to which our innate sense of horror can be tethered.

Against this, when asked why torturing children is wrong, the non-theist might say, well because it just is. How do you know? Well, because it feels so terribly wrong to me. Well then, says the theist, if somebody else then has not the slightest qualm about committing such atrocities, are you saying that for them it is not wrong? Are you not thus sanctioning the torturing of young children? (Cue indignant range.)

And that certainly sounds like something one would want to avoid, sanctioning torture, genocide, and goodness knows what else some deviant might consider okay. So, is it really the case that in order to have a justifiable moral compass, one must commit to belief in God? What are the options?

One defence is to attempt to establish an objective moral code that doesn’t reference the supernatural. The atheistic cheerleader Sam Harris has had a go at this, his simple move being to start with the assumption that morally good can be defined as that which supports the flourishing of humanity, and then measuring any potential act against this criteria (and here, torturing the child is indeed morally wrong). The weakness of this case is that the definition itself appears to be somewhat arbitrary. It’s not impossible to imagine that the child torturer is not particularly committed to the notion of human flourishing. This being the case, one needs to mount a case as to why pursuing human flourishing is a morally better goal than pursuing the recreational pleasure of the torturer. The problem appears to have been simply shifted along, one still needs to ground the definition. (It’s possible to attempt to ground this in our common nature, but I think this shifts us into a slightly different definition of objectivity.)

For this reason, I don’t much like the non-theist’s attempt to establish an objective morality. So, what’s the alternative. Well, I’m almost loathe to type this, because I can sense the ‘what, you think it’s okay to torture children?’ response-guns, locked and loaded, ready to take aim. But, here it is, the option is to let go of the sense of objective morality altogether. What if the very notions of right and wrong make no sense, divorced from the context of the human being making the judgement? What if the best any of us can ever say about any moral issue is that we, personally, don’t want to live in a world where such is sanctioned?

It’s how I feel about needless torture (actually, perhaps any torture, but there’s another topic). I find it repugnant, horrifying, appalling, choose your adjective. Anything that captures the fact that I am prepared to work actively to rid my world of its possibility. And if somebody else feels differently, you may ask. Am I saying they’re quite right to do so? Not quite. Rather I’m arguing that right and wrong are red herrings. I understand the motivations of the torturer. I understand their desires are different then mine. And I understand that just as I do not wish to live in a world where their notion of right and wrong is allowed to express itself, they do not wish to live in a world where their desires are curtailed. So we have a problem to be solved. A conflict of values. I need to convince them that there is another way of being they will ultimately find more satisfying, and if I can’t do that, I need to impose controls on their behaviour. And they may well attempt to thwart me.

The point I would make is that this is exactly the problem the believer in objective right and wrong also faces. Sure, they believe they are objectively right, but the torturer may well beg to differ. The opposition, and the options open, appear identical.

Not so fast, argues the theist. Because I believe in right and wrong, I believe I have the right to oppose the torturer. If it really is just a matter of personal circumstance and predilection, what right do you have to impose your preferences on theirs? The simple answer is, I don’t believe I have a right to do this, but I do have a desire to. And I will act on that desire (just as I will duck a punch thrown at me, acting on the desire not to be hit). So, one can live an apparently moral life, and one can examine and debate moral issues, without believing in objective moral truths. There’s no contradiction. The theistic claim that only God can make sense of morality is predicated on the assumption that only objective moral values make proper sense of our actions. And I would dispute this.

A final point is that the theist’s reasoning may be turned back on them. What if they were to discover that although they were right to believe in moral truths, they’d got the moral compass the wrong way around entirely? In fact God wishes to see us cause pain and suffering, this is his taste and our purpose. So, objectively speaking, torturing children for fun is right. Were this fact of the universe to be revealed to the theist, would they begin to torture children, or would rather their personal distaste override their knowledge of what is truly right? If the former, then they are driven ultimately by taste, just as I am. If the latter, well the claim that I’m the one with the world view that sanctions torture isn’t looking quite as secure.


2 thoughts on “Thou shalt not shalt

  1. Darrell says:


    Always interesting. My comments would take up way too much space here, so I decided to respond with my own post. Food for thought.

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