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23 November 2010

Religion as a Basis for Morality

Jon Kornelsen (who has previously asserted that atheism requires faith), recently had a new letter published in the Uniter. Because I'm a cantankerous bastard, I have responded. Feel free to jump on the comment thread.

I'll post my comments here:

In his response to Keterina Tefft's article, "Religion is no basis for morality", Jon Kornelsen makes the following statement:

[T]hese faith-communities take the Bible seriously... Therefore, we adhere to all of its doctrines – even the ones that offend modern sensibilities.

If Mr. Kornelsen isn't making a jest, I would ask if he has ever read the Bible.

Lapidation (that is to say, stoning) is the prescribed punishment for those who curse their parents (Leviticus 20:9), apostates (Deuteronomy 13:6–10), adulterers (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual men (Leviticus 20:13), and virgins who are betrothed, raped, and don't scream loud enough (Leviticus 22:23–24), among others.

Also forbidden are tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), trimming the sides of your head or beard (Leviticus 19:27), and wearing garments woven of both linen and wool (Deuteronomy 22:11).

Or [will] Mr. Kornelsen will play the ever-popular Get Out of the Old Testament Free Card?

In Matthew 5:17–18, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."

To better illustrate the absurdity of attempting to actually live by Biblical law, I would recommend A.J. Jacobs' wonderful book, The Year of Living Biblically.

But Kornelsen continues:

After all, if a moral law does exist for humanity (as she implies, and I certainly agree), from where does it originate? Science and rationality may describe morality, but they cannot create it.

In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris would probably beg to differ. Although I think that he overplays his hand a little, I agree with much of what he has to say.

Regardless, Kornelsen seems woefully ignorant of the entire field of normative ethics. I would recommend that he begin his education here:

In other words, the existence of a moral law requires the existence of a moral lawgiver.

I would humbly direct Mr. Kornelsen to Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, which asks the question: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

In the first case, God is merely a messenger who is relating a descriptive law of the universe, and God's existence is not necessary for the existence of such a moral law.

In the second case, God is the source of the moral law, which is prescriptive. However, this also makes the moral law arbitrary. If God were the source of morality, and God commanded (or carried out) the slaughter of innocent children (as he does several times in the book of Numbers, for example), that would be by definition moral.

To conflate descriptive and prescriptive laws (to argue, for example, that the law of gravitation requires a lawgiver) is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.

To quote Sam Harris: "In the best case religion gives people bad reasons to be good where good reasons are actually available, and in the worst case it separates moral thinking from the actual details of human and animal suffering."

There are far finer moral systems available than the arbitrary, authoritarian ethics offered by religious dogma.


  1. Plato doesn't consider the possibility that morality itself is the character of the god (Having more then on presents other difficulties). If that is the case then god's existence is needed for morality, but morality is not arbitrary; it is part of God's essence.

    I think that move can get one out of the dilemma. There may be other difficulties with saying morality comes from God's essence, but I think it is a valid response to Euthyphro.

  2. As someone who has read the entire Bible, all I can do is laugh heartily to myself when someone tries to claim that they " adhere to _all_ (emphasis in the original) of its doctrines – even the ones that offend modern sensibilities." It is patently absurd to anyone who's spent five minutes educating themselves on the subject.

  3. Bryan, let me verify that I understand your argument: You're asserting that morality could exist as part of God's essence, and that the existence of God would therefore be necessary for the existence of morality?

    Sure, I suppose so. I was applying the Euthyphro dilemma in this case because of Kornelsen's specific claim that "the existence of a moral law requires the existence of a moral lawgiver". If I understand your proposition (which I may not—I skipped my afternoon coffee) it seems to me that in that case morality wouldn't be a law, either descriptive or proscriptive, but would instead be some sort of force or property. In this case Euthyphro wouldn't apply, but neither would Kornelsen's description of a lawgiver.

    The other problem with the argument that you advance, I think, is that one could just as easily claim that morality is simply a property of the universe. Or that it's part of the essence of oxygen, and can't exist without it. Or that it is generated by the constant fizz of virtual particles that are (purportedly) created and destroyed. Or that it's an intrinsic part of the character of the invisible space-pixies that permeate our universe.

    As I have yet to be convinced of the existence of any gods, and there is no evidence that morality is anything like what you describe, I would have no reason to accept your definition as true or useful.

  4. I over spoke in the last comment when I said "f that is the case then god's existence is needed for morality..." As I re-read it that is clearly incorrect as all I have done is offer up an explanation of morality and god, that does not fall to Euthyphro. I haven't actually made an argument that it MUST be that way. Apologies.

    I would say that morality exists as part of god's essence because morality is a reflection of the character of god. So instead of saying that it is descriptive or prescriptive I think it is better described as saying morality is exemplified in god.

    This does make it somewhat a property, but it is not a general property but one specific to god which he then gives as law. Since god is good, and that "goodness" (morality) is part of his character when this law to be like god is given it is neither from outside god, nor arbitrary.

    I have heard the argument before that non-corporal ideas such as morality and logic may in fact be inherent properties of matter. One could make that a first principle for constructing a world view, but they would need to follow it through. Is morality then an "is" or an "ought"? If it is an "is" then why do people disagree on it? If it is an "ought" how is it one? These are of course questions those who believe in a god must answer as well, so in the end you end up with competing world views and which one you think is more likely.

    One note: My goal here is only consistency and showing that one can believe morality comes from God and not fall to Euthyphro. I make this explanation because I love Plato and have often thought how one could respond to him in this case. One can reject what I proposed here out of hand since there is no supporting argument for morality being part of God's character given.

  5. Sure, I think that I understand your argument: God is communicating the "law" of morality, but it is a fundamental part of his nature, and thus he is not simply a messenger. However, if that is the case (and presuming that we're discussing the God of the Bible), I would imagine that he and I would disagree on many fundamental moral principles.

    "I have heard the argument before that non-corporal ideas such as morality and logic may in fact be inherent properties of matter."

    I don't actually find any reason to believe that morality "exists" except conceptually/descriptively, and the same goes for the rules of logic.

    "One can reject what I proposed here out of hand since there is no supporting argument for morality being part of God's character given."

    Agreed. ;)