The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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When we think of those opposed to homosexuality – which still sounds weird to me, like opposing left-handed people* – or stem-cell research or euthanasia, we tend conclude they’re justifying themselves because of religion. But, as with almost anything underpinned by religion, the pendulum swings both ways: religious people also support these. And, perhaps without energy or recognisable ability to justify their moral decisions, many often fall back on their god’s say-so to provide a foundation for their otherwise empty assertions that certain things are right or wrong. Of course, one tends to forget that this is true even of those who support views one condones.
By definition, justifying moral views because god says so is inherently flawed. I have not seen an escape from the problem begun with Plato's Euthyphro’s Dilemma, two millennia ago. After looking at the Dilemma, I'll highlight what I consider the fundamental problem with religious-based ethics.
As Plato first portrayed it, we have to ask with James Rachels a two-part question: “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it, or (2) do the gods command it because it is right?”
“Conduct is moral because god says so”
If (1) then conduct takes on the afterglow of being moral because of the gods’ wishes, rendering morality arbitrary. It is merely their blessing which “makes” it good, not the thing itself - which is not in-itself troubling, since, for example, utilitarianism operates the same way. Before something is good or bad, it is amoral: rape, torturing babies, hugging bunnies, and so on could be made good or bad.
The difference between (1) and other moral frameworks, like utilitarianism, is that what gives conduct moral currency is up to the gods’. This means the whims and wishes of beings who are not us, beyond us and our scrutiny, etc.: as Yahweh did in the Bible, this could render genocide, trophy-wives and so on, as moral just because a god says so (or because powerful men tell us god says so). I know few people who would follow through with what they believe their god says all the time, as Adam Lee, at Daylight Atheism, pointed out with his Abraham Test. Furthermore, this makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods. Further still, of course, even if we believe all this to be true, religious people of the same religion cannot even agree on moral matters: whether homosexuality is right or wrong, capital punishment, abortion in dire circumstances, etc. All this, too, is prefaced on the recognition that some kind of morally engaged deity exists.
“God commands it because it is right”
If (2) then we must ask, simply, “why is this conduct right?” Basically, we are repeating ourselves! If the gods are saying “helping others in need is good” because “helping others is in need is good” we’ve reached a tautology. “God commands a good action because it is a good action”. This doesn’t help us at all. We still want to know why it is good. And, remember, if we say to this “Because god says it is good”, we’re back to the problems pointed out in the previous section.
It might also be an opportunity to say that the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard if we are proclaiming “helping others in need is good”: what do we mean by good? This places us on proper ethical platforms to discuss our meanings of good.
"God Would Never Do Evil"
One popular method to try and save face is to proclaim that my god would never do or will anything other than good. That is, there is in fact a third option. As popular religious ethicist Greg Koukl says: “The third option is that an objective standard exists. However, the standard is not external to God, but internal. Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness” (quoted from this blogpost). All that’s happened here is that god is already being defined as good. So the Christian god automatically is good. But one can immediately see the problem: what is meant by “good”? By what standard are we even saying god is good? We can’t simply be saying “god is good” before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn't answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.
Again, we might merely restate the original dilemma: "Is god good because he says so, or is he good because he really is good?" If the former, then it’s arbitrary, unclear, uncertain and so on – whereas, if it’s the latter, we still haven’t answered the question of how we know what good is.
Why this Matters
The point is, as Paul Cliteur highlights in The Secular Outlook, any religious-based ethics therefore is fundamentally flawed. By definition, a moral decision based on religion will be a command, a handed down assertion, a view propped up by circularity rather than consistency. Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely.
To be free, you must not be able to point to the whims of another individual as your moral justification. One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute: not the Creator of Universe, who I think suffers from the minor problems of inconsistency and non-existence, who you cannot dispute because by definition he “is good” or “must be obeyed”. The circularity traps everyone, not just you, in a prison of moral myopia: where we mistake the bars for protective fences.
That is why when people like Alise Wright make the point that it’s wrong to accuse Christians like her, who support gay marriage for example, of not being “true” or proper or “really” Christians, she’s right. The problem, however, that she misses and which I would consider central to my criticism of people like her is that there is a fundamental problem for everyone who bases their ethics on god, regardless of whether those conclusions square with nonbelievers’. So by “people like her”, I don’t see a Christian who supports a moral view I endorse: I see someone who is basing her ethics on the Bible. That’s my problem and that should be a problem for everyone, including Christians, as I’ve highlighted: it fundamentally undermines ethical deliberation, which requires free-thinking beings, not those following orders. This doesn't mean Christians can't be free-thinking beings (of course they are), it just means anyone who appeals to religion, specifically theism, as their basis for morality makes a flawed argument, no matter how they dress it up.
EDIT: Rephrased and fixed some sentences. Apologies.
UPDATE: Friend and member of the loyal opposition, theologian Jordan Pickering has written a reply to me.
* Thanks to reader Birnam420 for this brilliant suggestion.
Image Credit: Platón Academia de Atenas/WikiPedia (source)