With God, anything can be permitted?

afghan-womenRecently in Afghanistan we had the sight of two sets of protesters opposing each other but both chanting “God is great.” (See Women protesting at ‘pro-rape’ law attacked by Afghan men and video: Afghan women protest against marriage law). Obviously both the women who were opposing new legislation limiting their sexual and human rights, and the men who were supporting the legislation (and opposing the sexual and human rights of women), thought they had their “God on their side.”

APTOPIX AS Afghanistan

This seems crazy to most people but is not at all unusual. Consider the civil rights struggles in the USA. Christian beliefs were used to justify both segregation and the opposition to it. The same in South Africa. Most members of the Dutch reform Church thought apartheid was sanctified by God, whereas many anti-apartheid activists opposed apartheid on religious grounds. Consider slavery. Consider just about any struggle over human rights in human history and we can see examples of a god being used to justify both opposition to, and support of, human rights.

This suggest to me that religion does allow for an extreme form of moral relativism. Truly anything can be justified by claiming support from your god. To paraphrase Dostoevsky’s famous statement – “With God anything can be permitted.”

UN resolution on “defamation of religion”

I thought of this when reading a blog post at Christian News NZ (see I WANT my religious beliefs criticized!). Strange irony in the title there as the anonymous writer (admin) was attacking a Dominion Post article defending the human right to freedom of expression. This article described how the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution on “defamation of religion” was actually attacking freedom of expression. Admin also appeared to believe his rights to “criticise homosexuality as depraved and sinful” have somehow been removed by recognition of the rights of minority groups in our country.

Admin complains his ideas are not allowed “into the marketplace of ideas” because there were too few “Christian/Jesus movies shown on TV this Easter” and  “intelligent design has not been  given a fair hearing.” (On the latter, if intelligent design got the publicity it deserved from supporting scientific evidence we would never hear about it, would we).

I think admin is being disingenuous with his title – he is really arguing for a special place for religion and for its freedom from criticism. I am left with the impression that admin supports the UN Human Rights Council “relgious defamation” resolution.  Admin even suggests that “Islam … is likely to be God’s sword of judgement against Europe in coming days.” Let that be a warning to you infidels and heathens! And admin doesn’t think we should be able to criticise such stupidity.

No doubt the men demonstrating in Afghanistan believed that the women were defaming religion. Similarly supporters of apartheid, segregation and slavery would have considered the anti-slavery, anti-apartheid and anti-segregation movements to be defaming religion.

Mental gymnastics

And now for the mental gymnastics. Admin justifies his attacks by claiming that “We can only criticise if moral absolutes exist, and they only exist if God exists.” We have heard this before with the claim that atheists shouldn’t criticise Hitler (see Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler!). The claim that only believers in a god have a basis for their morality!! Without a god you have no right to criticise religion. No right to freedom of expression!

This is a pathetic argument. They are declaring that because they don’t understand the sources of human morality and moral logic therefore “god did it.” The old “explanation” which explains nothing.

Today there is a scientific understanding of moral intuition and moral logic. This provides a basis for objective morality and “moral absolutes.” It seems to me we all rely on these intuitions and logic whether we believe in a god or not. A religious claim that it is the source of morality is really an acknowledgement that religious “morality” is parasitic upon secular morality.

But when secular morality is abandoned, and religious appeals to what God wants, or what God ordains, this opens the gates wide to the worst sort of moral relativism. It enables any despot to sanction any form of inhumanity by claiming that their god supports it.

When this happens we are justified in saying “With a God, anything can be permitted.”

Required disclaimer:

I know, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on evil activity. It also comes from political and ideological extremism. But lets be fair about this. We have rights to criticise evil perpetrated in the name of politics and ideology. We should not have the freedom of expression, the ability to defend basic human rights, removed in the case of religion.

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14 responses to “With God, anything can be permitted?

  1. Ken, I’ve been thinking much along the same lines for a while now and I wonder whether the basis for this doesn’t lie with the very uneven epistemic situation that religions set up. On a naturalist view you get a fairly even fallibilist playing field. On such a field no-one is an absolute authority and the only way to establish truth is, more or less, or try to work it our together. With a revealed religion, the Gods and their annointed representatives are, supposedly, in an infinitely better epistemic position than the rest of us. They simply know the truth so the best thing the rest of us can do, if we accept their claims to epistemic authority, is to simply let them tell us what’s what rather than trying to figure it out using our tiny intellects. And, if what they tell us sounds completely implausible to us, well that just shows how silly we are, doesn’t it?

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  2. Konrad Talmont-Kaminski,

    I agree: the religious often (usually?) use their religion to self-justify their position, rather than explore the issues. Of course I’m horribly low-brow, and avoid references to philosophy! 🙂

    I like the by-line for your blog (Superstition as a natural phenomenon) by the way. I should post this on your blog, but I’m in a bit of a hurry: if you want small airport terminal buildings, try flying to somewhere in the tropics; often enough the terminal building is literally a tin shed! Excepting places like Singapore, of course…

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  3. Pingback: Middle east conflict in the NZ blogosphere? « Open Parachute

  4. Pingback: MandM

  5. [Manual trackback since Blogger doesn’t do them]
    With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality

    […] If Ken’s argument is sound then he has offered, not just an argument against theism, but an argument against the existence of morality itself. […]

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  6. Ok, I stand corrected – Blogger can do trackbacks to WordPress!

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  7. Madeleine,

    As I read it he asking for genuine morality rather than (theistic or otherwise) self-justification, which tends to justify anything the person wants.

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  8. Allow me to expose your various lies again, Ken.

    Strange irony in the title there as the anonymous writer (admin) was attacking a Dominion Post article defending the human right to freedom of expression.

    Your compulsion to poison the well is becoming a bit transparent, don’t you think? Anyone who clicks through to that link will see that the opening sentence is

    imageThis is a good piece from the Dominion Post, Monday April 6, 2009.

    Yeah, that’s right. What a vicious “attack”!

    Without a god you have no right to criticise religion. No right to freedom of expression!

    This has been explained to you on numerous occasions, yet you continue to resort to patent strawmen rather than interact with the actual position of Christians. Why is that? The issue is whether your worldview provides an ontological grounding for ethics. And your worldview plainly does not.

    This is a pathetic argument. They are declaring that because they don’t understand the sources of human morality and moral logic therefore “god did it.” The old “explanation” which explains nothing.

    What is pathetic is that you continue to lie about what your opponents believe, instead of representing them accurately. In fact, the Christian position is not that “God did it”, but that ethics, being about “oughts”, require an ontology which incorporates and makes sense of “oughts”. Your worldview does not do that; in fact, in the final analysis it eliminates “oughts” from the discussion entirely, meaning that ethics don’t exist.

    But when secular morality is abandoned, and religious appeals to what God wants, or what God ordains, this opens the gates wide to the worst sort of moral relativism. It enables any despot to sanction any form of inhumanity by claiming that their god supports it.

    That isn’t moral relativism. I know it’s useful to smear your opponents with handy catch-phrases regardless of whether they’re true or not, but try to be more precise in future. Moreover, Matt Flannagan wiped his bum with this argument, as Madeleine already linked above.

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  9. Calm down Bnonn @ April 28, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I have read Matt’s article and don’t find it at all convincing. It suffers from quite a bit of strawmannery and neglect of even the possibility of a secular conscience or morality. He ignores the fact that there is today a science of morality.

    As I am shortly to do a series of posts countering Craig’s five debating points – one of which is the origins of morality – I will probably leave commenting in any detail on Matt’s article for that particular post.

    By the way – I am surprised the anonymous “admin” from Christian News didn’t come to his own defence if I have, indeed, misrepresented the general tone of his article. Or are you representing him (her)?

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  10. Ken, if you don’t find Matt’s argument convincing, I think you’ve missed the point.

    Perhaps you are discussing at cross purposes? I am going to have to go through your argument a little slower, as there were some assertions you made that I couldn’t see the basis for, but in fairness, it may be covered in your links.

    Look forward to your next post.

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  11. Zentiger (April 28, 2009 at 11:15 pm) – maybe you are right about cross-purposes. The mistake may be intentional or purposeful though.

    I was going to comment on Matt’s post but will make my comments here as you have raised this possibility.

    Unfortunately Matt rather wasted his time with his post because he apparently did not give the appropriate care to reading my original article. Consequently he has resorted to irrelevant strawmannery and word play.

    Matt actually conceded my point with: “I grant that people can use theological premises in an attempt to justify different and inconsistent positions . . .” However, his subsequent comment: “this is a fairly innocuous claim,” is heartless. Tell that to the 3000 who died in the New York World Trade Centre attack, to the many women whose rights and lives are violated under Sharia law and under theocratic regimes, to those massacred in the Jonestown tragedy, to the many victims of indiscriminate bombings of mosques and public places in India, Pakistan, Iraq, etc., etc.,, etc. I could, unfortunately, go on.

    And yes, as Matt says this is not restricted to religious dogma – the very point I made in the highlighted disclaimer at the end of my article (didn’t Matt read that far?). It’s a common problem with extreme ideologies. So was my point again “innocuous”? Again, tell that to all the victims of ideologically “justified” persecution by Mao ZeDong, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Franco, etc., etc. Unfortunately again, I could go on.

    Matt has disingenuously played with the meaning of the word “justify” to distort my article. Similarly, he is just wrong (to put it mildly) in his claim that I say, or argue that, “Belief in a god entails an extreme form of moral relativism” and “God’s existence entails extreme moral relativism.” I say, or indeed believe, nothing of the sort!!

    Most of us (theists and non-theists alike) come to our moral/ethical positions as a result of our moral intuitions and using moral logic. That is not a relativist position.

    However, when a group or individual “justifies” a position by saying that it is what their god wants or commands (or what their Great leader or their ideology demands) they do this to override our normal moral intuitions and logic. Because anything can be “justified” in this situation it is an extreme form of moral relativism.

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  12. Bnonn wrote this to Ken:

    What is pathetic is that you continue to lie about what your opponents believe, instead of representing them accurately. In fact, the Christian position is not that “G-d did it”, but that ethics, being about “oughts”, require an ontology which incorporates and makes sense of “oughts”. Your worldview does not do that; in fact, in the final analysis it eliminates “oughts” from the discussion entirely, meaning that ethics don’t exist.

    In this you do two things I have seen you do a little too often to be healthy to my mind.

    In the first part, you try define as “Christian” a position that only applies to a particular subset of Christians, which you happen to belong to. I feel you should try harder to recognise that “being a Christian” is not limited to your particular subset of it.

    In a way this sort of thing is a parallel example to what Ken was writing, but from a reversed position. His article presents an example of the same belief/justification being used to support opposing positions. Consider: if two different groups both claim to be “true” followers of the same G-d and both insist that the other is not really a follower of that G-d but only they are, they can’t both be right. Just as in Ken’s example of both parties claiming their different conclusions are right using identical justification, this is equally crazy. The simplest solution, of course, is that they are both wrong, with the same underlying fault as in Ken’s example: that both parties relying on self-justification rather than logic.

    In the second part of what I have quoted, you try to make it “all about” your particular branch of pseudo-philosophy, apologetics, which amounts to self-justification.

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  13. Hi Ken. Can I confirm some of the base propositions in your post, as I’m still having trouble following this.

    1. Appealing to God as a justification for a moral position is an example of extreme moral relativism. (Actually, appealing to God is presumably appealing to a source that is assumed to be authorised by God, such as the Bible?)

    2. The option of appealing to God effectively allows anything to justified without resorting to “secular morality”.

    3. Secular morality is superior to religious morality.

    4. Secular rationalism is superior to religious rationalism.

    5. Moral intuition provides a basis for moral absolutes.

    6. Moral absolutes cannot be derived from outside of the mind of man.

    Is this the case, or am I off the rails?

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  14. ZenTiger – my “off-the-cuff” responses:

    1: Appealing to a god can justify moral relativism. Often people will publicly justify their moral position by laying it on their god, but in fact they have arrived at that position in the same way as the rest of us;

    2: Appealing to a god can be used to justify anything – as in the examples given in my post;

    3: Our moral intuitions and moral logic are really the only real source of our morality. Of course our intuitions can be used to justify quite immoral (in a logical sense) actions (the “them vs us, disgust, etc., intuitions). So called “religious morality” is usually based on our moral intuitions and logic – that’s why most (if not all) “religious morality” is the same as “secular morality”;

    4: I don’t know what you mean by “secular rationalism” and “religious rationalism”. Surely there is just one way of being rational.

    5: No. As I said often our intuitions are hijacked for what we would consider, on reflection, as immoral purposes. Our logic can provide moral absolutes in much the same way as it provides mathematical absolutes.

    6: In the sense that mathematical absolutes exist independently of the existence of humans, so may moral absolutes. These things really come down to the relationship between objects or sentient intelligent beings. So, in a sense, the moral absolutes exist even if they only relate to possible intelligent sentient beings.

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