Eusebius McKaiser (political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics and radio talk show host) was recently involved in a public debate with John Lennox (Oxford Professor of Mathematics and renowned speaker on the interface of Science, Philosophy and Religion) around the question of whether there is a connection between morality and God. As I write this blog, I have not seen the actual debate but hope to provide a link to a video or audio recording thereof in due course. My response is simply to McKaiser’s own follow-up article which appeared in The Star after the debate. Below is a copy of the article with my notes inserted in italics. My assumption is that, as a public response to Christians, McKaiser refers to orthodox Christian doctrine and the following perception of God, and hope to respond as one of those adhering to that. Please point out any instance where I might depart from orthodoxy myself, especially where it would make McKaiser’s argument more valid.
Why God’s not a moral imperative
God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
I promised you last week that I would offer you full argument in this week’s column for why morality does not need God. Now that my public debate with Professor John Lennox has come and gone – and thank you for those who generously travelled afar to fill the Wits Great Hall – I can write out of my basic argument for those who were not there.
Although the public debate lasted some 90 minutes, the problems with Christian ethics are so incredibly basic that I can confidentially assert I can put Christian ethics on the back foot in under 800 words. Not because I am cocky (though I can live with a bit of shade thrown my way from internet trolls in this summer heat), but because Christian ethics do not live up to critical scrutiny very well.
Is murder wrong because God says so or does God tell you not to murder because it is wrong regardless of what God himself secretly thinks? How about rape? Is rape wrong only once God sends us a command “Thou shalt not rape!”. Or is rape wrong whether or not God commands us to not rape?
McKaiser presents two options here: murder or rape is wrong, either because God uttered a command which established it as wrong or because God identifies these as immoral deeds due to His recognition of a moral law, apart from Himself, which He may or may not agree with. Earlier McKaiser sets out to critique Christian ethics, but then starts off by describing a Deity unlike the one portrayed through the Christian biblical narrative, the One acknowledged by the orthodox Christian community through the ages as the true God. Firstly, he presents God’s utterances which convey moral laws as separate from God’s being and character. Christianity views God as Triune and holy. Holiness implies absolute moral purity, a state of wholeness and perfect relationship within the Triune Godhead. God’s holiness does not require imperfection or strained relationships as reference points for His wholeness; He is all-personal, all-relational and all-perfect within Himself. His very being is the moral standard; strained relationships between his creatures and Himself, among His creatures with one another and between his creatures and the greater cosmos, are ultimately what immorality looks like: that which does not reflect the character of the Trinitarian relationship. Thus, actions and thoughts are deemed immoral because of whom God is, and His moral utterances are never separate from that. God is also eternal and thus, the immorality of rape is eternal.
Secondly, he presents God as a being, existing under a moral law which He recognises apart from and fixed outside of Himself, having to comply with its absolute status. Holiness also implies that He is above, separate from, and different to all of His creation, of which He is the creative source. He is morally fixed, creation not. It was created with the potential to drift from its state of holiness. Christians believe that it has drifted and is drifting in that direction, bar His interventions.
Christians – and those of other faiths – have a huge problem answering these questions I’m afraid. They have only two choices. Either they can say rape is wrong because God or Allah or whoever doesn’t want us to rape, or they can say that God reminds us to not rape because rape is necessarily wrong as a matter of universal moral truth that is independent of God. But watch where that leads you though.
I have shown above why I believe he created a straw man Christian God, now even drawing other perceptions of God (Allah and others) into his definition. From that he creates a false dilemma Christians supposedly find themselves in, which may or may not serve his argument – it certainly misrepresents the foundation of the Christian argument.
If things are right or wrong only once God has given his view, then morality becomes completely arbitrary. We are at that point at the whim of God. If you’re an obedient Christian, this logically forces you to accept that if a missing page from the Bible is found tomorrow that says “Kill all racists on online comments’ sections”, then you must do so. It is God’s command, after all.
He continues with his above line of argument, still assuming ‘murder is immoral’ apart from God, which is not the Christian position, and also a moral claim he is himself yet to defend apart from his own ‘command’.
Well, Mr and Ms Christian, would you willy-nilly follow commands from God regardless of whether you personally feel comfortable with them? Would you? Is that a “No” I am hearing from you? Good. Because presumably you will only follow moral commands that are rational and meaningful. There is nothing rational or intelligible about a command to kill left-handed people, say, just because some authority instructs you to.
So, we can safely conclude so far that it is not desirable for morality to be based purely, and uncritically, on God’s wishes or on what God had for breakfast. We want more. We want reasons.
Again, it is assumed what Christians would answer. But would orthodox Christians answer in that way? At the centre of the decision to follow Christ exists the denial of self, or the proverbial “taking up of one’s cross”. Throughout history, Christians have followed God’s commands despite their own discomfort. He of course suggests a non-existing command which would make God seem immoral…but by whose standards?
There is good news. You could, instead, accept that God tells you not to murder because murder is wrong. Murder is wrong whether or not God exists. Murder is wrong whether or not God says so. And if God says to you you should not murder, he isn’t inventing a fresh, new moral command; he is simply communicating a sensible moral command that already exists widely in our societies for good reasons, in the same way I can communicate sensible rules to children: “Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!”
If I didn’t exist as Johnny’s dad, that wouldn’t make it right for him to kick the living daylights out of his little sister. The wrongness does not depend on me, as dad, saying it is wrong. In the best-case scenario, I simply play the minor cameo role in Johnny’s life by uttering what should and should not be done. The wrongness consists in the violation of her entitlement to respect and dignity by virtue of being a human being, flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up (unless I consent, in some circumstances).
McKaiser now aims to present his case against murder. He likens God to a human father, once again a being operating within the cosmos, subject to cosmic absolutes – remember, not the Christian understanding of God. Being a human being entitles one to not be murdered, is, in effect, what he is saying. Why are human beings, consisting of the same or similar materials than all other material things in existence, so different though, and entitled to this respect and dignity? He reveals it to be a matter of preference… unless there is consent… in some circumstances. What he basically does is he places morality within the (preferably) autonomous individual. He moves from absolute or objective morality to relative or subjective morality. It is reduced to a matter of opinion. Although, he does not appear to be an absolute relativist (irony not intended) but rather a modernist rationalist, who believes in society’s collective ability to discover what we ‘ought’ to do, apart from God of course.
So Christians, and other faiths including Islam and Judaism, must make up their minds: Do you follow commands regardless of what they are? Or do you concede you can tell me why cheating or killing or raping or terrorism are all wrong without making references to supernatural beings? And the truth is you know you can articulate the wrongness of these activities without reference to a God. That means God is not needed for morality. God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning and he plays no necessary role in you puzzling through questions of right and wrong.
What happens here is, he continually operates from the assumption, which I believe he has not yet defended, that killing, raping, terrorism(!?) are all absolutely immoral, then states that he can argue that it is wrong apart from mentioning God and that Christians ought to agree. Personally, I cannot articulate the wrongness of abovementioned activities without reference to God, and I understand that to be the orthodox Christian position.
I was shocked that Lennox’s main response to me was that he partly agrees. I asked him if he could write me a 500-word essay, without making reference to his Christian God, but still explaining fully in that essay why it is wrong to murder. He said yes, he could. That is a gigantic concession that is going to be archived on YouTube. Yes, I am pleased about that. Many Christians would have said: “No, it is not possible.” I was so taken aback, I thought the moderator surely ought to stop the debate right there. Lennox had crossed the argumentation floor!
My personal issue was with McKaiser’s argument presented above and that was what I wanted to respond to.
He further states, though, that Lennox agreed with him on there being no necessity to invoke God to argue for the immorality of murder, for instance. He was quite shocked to hear him say that, as that would mean he made a concession which faults his own argument, in favour of McKaiser’s. I will leave you to be your own judge, and more so once footage of the debate becomes available, on whether it truly was such a concession. Having followed Lennox’s talks and debates online, I interpret his statement to mean that, “Our ability to reason and conclude absolute moral rights and wrongs, serves as evidence pointing towards an absolute moral source. Both those who acknowledge such a source and those who don’t, are equally able to discover those absolutes because of our rational,God-given ability to discern an absolute moral law.” In Lennox’s conversation with John Maytham on Cape Talk Radio, he mentions that evidence points towards God but we still need to decide whether it is indeed true. If He is not, morality is as relative as McKaiser portrays it, and I am convinced Lennox will agree with that. If he does not, however, I would disagree with him on that point.
But he then explained why it is only a partial concession from where he was coming from. He insisted that God still plays an important role because God gives him, and me, the rationality that, in turn, helps us to reason about morality. So while him and I can both reason about the wrongness of murder with no reference to God, God is responsible for the rational capacity that enables us to reason.
This is a shockingly poor retort, though, and one he has trotted out many times in debates with Richard Dawkins and others. They never called him out on an elementary problem with this response. I don’t even have to say I don’t believe in God’s existence to explain what is unconvincing here. Even if God exists – no, more generously still, let’s pretend that the Christian God with all his bells and whistles really does exist – so what if he gave me the capacity to reason? That doesn’t save the day. It still remains that people can, as Lennox conceded, reason about morality in their daily lives without praying to God, without consulting the Bible, and without talking to their priests. That means God is not necessary for us to distinguish between right and wrong.
Sure, we should give God a bucket of umqombothi for giving me rationality. But the conclusion remains: we can now know rape is wrong without asking God if it is wrong. Where the rationality capacity comes from is a question for another day. In the context of reflecting on the connection between morality and God, we can safely conclude that God plays no epistemic role in the explanation and justification of moral rules that govern our societies.
Lennox’s argument is a bit like saying that just because my mom gave birth to me, she is a necessary part of the explanation of how I solve a maths problem.
Without her, I wouldn’t exist. That is true, but it is an utterly uninteresting truth when you congratulate me on winning a Maths Olympiad. The fact is that my perfect solutions for the maths puzzles are intelligible, and justified, regardless of who or what my mom is or the fact that she gave birth to me.
So thanks, God, for giving me rationality. But sorry dude, that means you are not needed beyond that. Your rationality gift has, sorry for you, rendered you unnecessary in moral reasoning. If you disappeared permanently tomorrow, I’ll still know the difference between right and wrong.
He ends off in his last few paragraphs, reasoning from the same ‘God character’ he created initially, and argued from throughout: a God who may have created him (McKaiser) as a rational being, but not along the Christian understanding of God as the perfect measure of all meaning and morality; also, once again likened to a parent figure within, and not apart from, reality.
Serv. in reply to Eusebius McKaiser
"Doing away with all religion to get rid of oppressive religion leaves us with an atheism which places no value on human beings” –John Lennox, Stellenbosch University, September 2014
"Something is a meter long inasmuch as it is the same length as the standard meter bar; something is good inasmuch as it approximates God." –William Alston