The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

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No objective morality without God

Hi cogitators, this post is coming out of an existing comment thread on the relationship between God and objective morality on my “About” page.  I’m moving it here for tidiness and greater visibility.

To get you up to speed.  It started with a comment I made at blogging compatriot A Reasonable Faith: “What basis does the work of clay have to judge its Maker?”

I received a response from a third blogger that “a work of clay can judge its maker if it’s better than its maker.”  While denying God’s existence, the blogger continues:

There are indeed objective standards for morals, in that they are those that allow civilization to move along smoothly e.g. the ideas of property and laws about the handling of it, the ideas of individual freedom, etc.

In turn, I characterized these as subjective:

Laws and customs about personal liberty and property rights, as you’ve mentioned do exist, but are only “subject” to limited enforcement. If for some moral duty a person can evade the long arm of accountability, then the moral duty is properly characterized as subjective.

In the subsequent reply, my fellow blogger defined objectivity:

If a law is uniformly found by humanity to be advantageous and can be demonstrated as such by facts, then one can call it objective, not beholden to personal beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Now we’re caught up.  This use of the word “objective” circumvents the conventional definition.  In Merriam-Webster Dictionary defintion 1b, “objective” is descriptive of something “having reality independent of the mind.”  Basing morality on laws “found by humanity” depends on mind twice, first to recognize it, and then to codify or normalize it.  This is not objective, but subjective, completely subject to human minds.

Besides this, restricting moral duties to what is advantageous to humanity is an arbitrary distinction.  Why not extend the limit to all animals, or even lichen?  Or, why not restrict it to only those humans in your halpogroup?  And what is “advantgeous” has been and will continue to be highly controversial among the ranks of humanity.  Say if the People’s Republic of China successfully spread the practice of one-child policy so that it was “uniform” throughout the world, would it then become right?  Finally, I am interested to know what specific moral values and duties are uniformly found to be advantageous?

What my fellow blogger is describing doesn’t quite get to the crux of objective morality.  He is focused on the epistemology of morality, that is, how we come to know moral values and duties. But the ontology of morality, the question of whether morality itself really exists, requires a logical grounding.  Otherwise, morals cannot be more than a subjective illusion.  After all, values like charity and fairness are immaterial, and “facts” themselves are incapable of pointing to their reality.

Speaking of facts, there is another distinction.  Right and wrong are descriptive of duties, while good and bad are descriptive of values.  An action that is right entails moral obligation.  No set of facts derived from observation of the material world can tell you what you are morally obligated to do.  In this sense facts are morally neutral.  But most people will affirm the reality that some actions we ought to do, regardless of the circumstances.  That which is deemed advantageous to humanity is at most a value but not an obligation, and thus fails to meet the full, common experience of morality.

Escaping subjectivity and achieving objectivity is indeed a high bar.  Moral values and duties are immaterial things that can’t exist in the natural world.  The only way objective morality might exist is supernaturally.  If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

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Now in the course of this post I will need to address some challenges from my fellow blogger, but these stand apart and are not necessary to support the above argument.

Challenge:

I’m guessing you think that your god enforces laws with no limit. That would be a good response *if* you could show that this was the case and that your god existed *and* did something. There is no evidence for this or any other god being a law enforcer. Thus, your claims of objectivity coming from god fail.

Response:  If God exists, he is the maximally greatest being.  As such, he is among other things perfectly just and omnipotent.  Whatever justice you do not see delivered in this world he is perfectly capable of administrating in eternity.  Obviously, he is very capable of “enforcing laws,” or our moral obligations, without limit in eternity if not here and now, as he often does through the providence of governments, natural disasters, and other things in his creation.

To show that God exists, I will build on the above premise about objective morality.  This is a version of the moral argument used by William Lane Craig.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I have laid out some reasons for premise 1 prior to the challenge section, and you, my fellow blogger, have assented to premise 2 twice already.

Challenge:

I need to see that you can show me that the Christian god exists and is the only one responsible. Can you do that? You seem to have ignored my point that most, if not all religions, make the same claims, that their god/gods created the laws of mankind. This makes your claim simply one among many. Do you understand the weakness of your position?

Response: I just offered arguments for God’s existence through the moral argument above.  Are there other Gods?  Occam’s razor advises us not to multiply causes beyond necessity.  One deity is sufficient to cause our existence.  The one triune God has revealed himself through the Bible, which includes multiple, reliable historical narratives attesting to the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled prophecies concerning the messiah, and is internally consistent.  It’s clear in this body of evidence that there is only one real deity.

Challenge:

If there were any objective laws from your god, then why did we have Christians on both sides of the slavery debate? Which side was on your god’s side? Why do we still have Christians who cannot agree about women’s issues, homosexuality, etc?

Response: Through the noetic effects of sin, the ability for all humans to know truth accurately has been impaired but is not without recourse.  That Christians, or anyone for that matter, may not apprehend objective morals with accuracy doesn’t affect the reality of objective values.  You have also assented to objective morality, so you share a similar burden to the Christian in justifying your specific stance on morality in contradistinction to the many others on the table.

Challenge:

I suspect you will invoke “free will” and claim that those Christians who disagree with you are not Christians at all and that your god is allowing them to make the mistakes they make. Again, this requires you to show me that your version is the only true version, and that your god exists at all.

Response: Free will is irrelevant to disagreements within the church.  There has been a recognizable pale of Christianity throughout the church’s history, sometimes captured by the idea of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There does exist a “true version” though it is obviously impossible for a human to know all its detail fully and accurately.  God’s grace is sufficient for a church whose constituents hold varied beliefs on secondary issues.

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