The Moral Bankruptcy of Divine Command Theory: Matthew Flannagan’s Failed Defense

Cover of Doctor Hector Avalos's book Bad Jesus: The Ethics of the New Testament, yellow background, with a frame including the key focus of a painting depicting Jesus whipping people in the temple square.Theology has no salvageable theory of morality. Theists complain atheists have no reason to be moral. But in fact theists have no reason to actually be moral, as in: to elevate compassion, honesty, and reasonableness above all authority, even the authority of their own gods. Unless they covertly adopt a naturalistic moral theory (and most do), they are not actually moral people. They are minions. Theists are essentially the unquestioning gestapo of whatever monster manufactured the universe. Or rather, whatever monster some men made up and duped them into thinking it made the universe. Which means, they are essentially the gestapo of whatever random ignorant madmen wrote their scriptures and now thumps their pulpits with sufficiently fiery claims of special divine communications at bedtime.

I’m sorry to say, but that’s the truth. Theism actually has no moral theory.

This is why.

Hannibal Lecter created the universe? He escaped from a future holodeck simulation and then used a stolen TARDIS to Make the Universe after evaporating God by discovering the Babel Fish? Oh crap. Well, I guess we better get down with murder and elegant cannibalism or else he’ll be angry with us and send us to hell. Because he is now eternal and the supreme being and made the universe. So we can’t deny, his will and character is now the ground of all morality. And, oh yeah. This all totally makes sense.

Is that any more sensible than…?

A cosmic Jewish zombie named Jesus who telekinetically fathered himself by a virgin and now resides in outer space, is possessed by the spirit of a supernal ghost that is in some sort of parallel-dimensioning identical with but distinct from himself and an ancient Canaanite storm god, and promises to make you live forever in an alternate dimension if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood, and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that has eternally tainted our mammalian flesh ever since a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. So you better do what he says.

And lest we forget, that’s the Jesus who has nothing to say against slavery or the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women or the execution of homosexuals, other than, at best, that you shouldn’t invite sluts and homos to legally murder the sluts and homos because that would be hypocritical (John 7:52-8:11, a forgery). Oh no, you are supposed to wait for Jesus to murder them (Matthew 3:12). This Jesus is actually a morally dubious person.

You can always invent any Jesus you want, of course. A Jesus who fought for abolition and women’s suffrage and the decriminalization of homosexuality—and, oh, let’s say, promoted democracy and human rights and universal education (also not things Jesus ever says one word for in the Bible). But that’s just a guy you are making up in your head. Because you don’t like the guy on paper. Except… That you have to invent a better Jesus than the one that’s in the Book, really says all that needs saying here.

Matthew Flannagan & My Article for Philo

Several years ago (though it entered print only a couple years ago) I published a paper in the philosophy journal Philo, responding to Christian fundamentalist Matthew Flannagan on behalf of noted atheist philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, whom Flannagan had written an article against, defending William Lane Craig’s Divine Command Theory against Sinnott-Armstrong’s rather scathing destruction of it. Sinnott-Armstrong was probably bored at this point. I was recruited to write the rebuttal. The result is Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as We Know Them, Ethical Naturalism Is All There Is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan,” Philo 15.2 (Fall-Winter 2012), pp. 200-11, I think so far my favorite paper for a peer reviewed philosophy journal.

The abstract reads:

In responding to Matthew Flannagan’s rebuttal to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument that ethical naturalism is more plausible than William Lane Craig’s Divine Command Theory of moral obligation (DCT), this author finds Flannagan incorrect on almost every point. Any defense of DCT is fallaciously circular and empirically untestable, whereas neither is the case for ethical naturalism. Accordingly, all four of Armstrong’s objections stand against Flannagan’s attempts to rebut them, and Flannagan’s case is impotent against a properly-formed naturalist metaethic.

In this paper I found Sinnott-Armstrong indisputably correct on every point but one, and even on that one he was correct, he just didn’t adequately prove it. My other peer reviewed paper on normative ethics, the chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” in The End of Christianity (ed. by John Loftus: Prometheus, 2011: pp. 333-64, 420-29), is an example of proving the point he intended, which is that grounds for morality not only do, but necessarily must exist independently of any gods, because in no other way can moral claims be sufficiently motivating so as to be true.

Flannagan has since published replies to my critique of him on his website (“Richard Carrier and the Arbitrariness Objection,” 5 September 2014, and “Richard Carrier and the Abhorrent Commands Objection,” 5 October 2014, and “Ethical Supernaturalism Is Still More Plausible Than Naturalism: Carrier’s Preliminary Objections,” 20 August 2014). Below I will summarize my paper in Philo, which summary already refutes most of what Flannagan now says—since what he now says pretty much ignores what I said, so restating what I said is a more than adequate rebuttal. And then I’ll address the remainder of Flannagan’s new rebuttals. The end result is not any different from where we started…

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Support Skepticon This Year!

Logo for Skepticon 8I’ll be attending Skepticon this November just as a regular Joe. But it’s a fantastic event that deserves your support. A thousand and more people benefit from getting to attend a free, well-run, kick-ass godless conference in the middle of the Bible Belt. There a number of different ways you can help. Some come with great perks! So click that link and see what you can do. And if you attend and can afford to pay any amount with your registration, throw some cash in when you register to go (and always please register, even if for free, so they know how many people to expect).

Sex & Sexism in Ancient Rome

Clipped photo of an actual ancient Roman silver dinner cup depicting in elegantly realistic relief a well built man lifting a boy lover up and having anal sex with him in the air. The cup shows all genitalia and the whole act, but because the internet is a prude, I have cut the image off just above that part.My talk for PolyColumbus last month has now made it to YouTube! It is age restricted due to its sexual content. A transcript is underway. I will add a link for that to this post (and announce it in comments, so if you want, subscribe to comments below to be alerted when that happens). But you can read the bullets (not quite a transcript), and for those who want to study further, I have provided my bibliography. Note also that this event was co-sponsored by the Humanist Community of Central Ohio and PolyColumbus, and a talk on this subject might never have happened but for them.

The full title of the talk is “Sex and Sexism in Ancient Rome: Crossroads of Sexual Freedom & State Oppression,” and the official talk description is:
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Did Muhammad Exist? (Why That Question Is Hard to Answer)

Cover of Robert Spencer's book Did Mohammad Exist? with subtitle An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins, black cover with antique looking painted flames in which resides an image of Mohammad, face erased. Yellow title. White subtitle and author credit. Also tagline for the author says New York Times bestselling author.I get asked this a lot. “Why not apply your methods and skills to the question of whether Muhammad actually existed or not?” My answer is always the same: I will not likely ever be able to do that, because it would require getting a whole second Ph.D. in Medieval Arabic Studies & Languages (and those languages include not just Medieval Arabic, but also Syriac at the very least). And I must emphasize, I would need not just a good command of the languages (as I do the Greek and Latin required for studying the origins of Christianity), but also “a strong grasp of the historical, cultural, political, social, economic, and religious context” of the origins of Islam (Proving History, p. 18), and that happens to include numerous relevant yet distinct cultural contexts (not just of the Middle East and North Africa, but Byzantine as well).

And I’m not going to do that. Because that period bores the shit out of me. If I ever get a second Ph.D., it will be in contemporary philosophy, to improve myself even further in that area, or a modern science. But Medieval Arabic Studies? Sorry. No. I have all these skills with respect to the origins of Christianity, so I am well qualified to produce peer reviewed studies of the historicity of Jesus (hence my book On the Historicity of Jesus, published by the University of Sheffield). But not so for Islam. We need someone to do that who has parallel skills in that field. I can competently communicate the findings of experts in the field. But on this topic, those findings are confusing and disputed at present.

Okay. So. Lacking my ability to test the question myself, or fully vet anyone else’s case as an expert, can I at least answer whether there is any plausibility to the claim that there was no Muhammad, that he was invented by early Arabic military leaders to give a name to a text they cobbled together to inspire their soldiers and build a new civilization on? In other words, that he was invented in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons as the militaristic Jews invented Moses?

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Typos List for On the Historicity of Jesus

I will update this page as I find more. But over the past year I and readers have caught dozens of typos in On the Historicity of Jesus that slipped through even our excessive editorial process (a common experience I find). Some of these may require corrections to the indexes as well (e.g. the scripture index). Please email me any you have caught that aren’t already listed here. Sorted here by page and then paragraph and/or line number (or note number):

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A Better Movie on the Jesus Myth

Movie poster for the film Batman & Jesus. Says: King's Tower Productions and Mythicist Milwaukee present, a documentary film by Jozef K. Richards, tag line Man or Myth? Logos for Mythicist Milwaukee and King's Tower Productions, closing line Coming Soon, and the URLs and, picture is a darkened cloudy sky with hint of sun in distance, behind a towering wooden cross with a shadowy splay of bat wings behind it.Mythicist Milwaukee & King’s Tower Productions are going to produce a well-researched film about the Jesus myth theory that deliberately eliminates the flaws of past films (like that awful Zeitgeist thing) and pays attention to the best scholarship on the issue, while also introducing a lot of entertaining features as well as educational ones.

They have a great plan. They have a great team. I and others will be vetting the end product. And now they have the funding! The working title is Batman & Jesus. Their theme is to compare the evolution of mythology for both characters and use that as a springboard to explain how demigods come to exist and what they represent.

They have a detailed four minute appeal video here. Well worth watching, to see what their plans are, what they need, and how well they have thought this out.

Update: A major donor has fully funded the film. They will not need further support at this time!

Appearing in Wichita!

I’ll be one of the featured speakers for the Skeptics of OZ Conference on Saturday October 17 (2015), in the CAC Theater at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kansas). Details here. Lanyrd here.

I’ll be discussing my book Proving History, but in particular answering the general question of “How science and history can prove or disprove miracles, and how we could (in theory or in practice) establish supernatural things exist or happen,” if there really were such things. So I’ll be talking about my work in defining the supernatural as well as the logic and method of history and the foundations of historical knowledge.

Others speaking will include communications expert Jeffrey Jarman, ex-scientologist Chris Shelton, and Vyckie D. Garrison of No Longer Quivering.

And Now I Preach about Polyamory

Screencap from Ask a Polyamorous Person YouTube video by Buzzfeed tackling the question, shown in the screencap, Is It Always an Orgy?Heina Dadabhoy has written a good article about the Preachy Polyamorist trope: Why Are Those Polyamorists So Damn Preachy?, which is enhanced by some of their earlier observations in When the Monogamous Bait Poly Smugness. I recommend reading both. I pretty much agree. And their latest has inspired me to write my own thoughts down, which expand on theirs, but also at points diverge from theirs.

Before I proceed, though, a trigger warning: I’m going to get all preachy about polyamory. In fact, I’m going to be a counter-example to Dadabhoy’s otherwise valid generalization, and become one of those “rather smug-seeming polyamorous people” who might leave you “feeling judged.” If you want to stop your ears against that, depart now. You were warned.

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Sacramento Freethought Day: I’ll Be There! So Should You!

Banner for the 14th Annual Freethought Day celebration. Shows crowd of people having fun in background. Foreground has the basic info found in the post.This year the day’s fun spans Sunday October 11 (2015), 10:30am-6:30pm, at the Capitol, in Sacramento (California). Details here. (Including schedule, appearing guests, amenities, tabling opportunities, and more.) Special guests include Mandisa Thomas, Jason Torpy, Chris Johnson, Sunday Assembly, and more. Lyz Lidell (of the Secular Student Alliance) and Amanda Metskas (of Camp Quest) will be talking about the amazing things their orgs are doing. Greta Christina will be tabling. As will Brendan Powell Smith, creator of the brilliant Brick Bible. Atheist poets will be charming the crowds. And again more.

The always fun VIP reception will be the night before, 7-10pm (Saturday, October 10), so donate big to get in on that, too. It’s not just fun. VIP funding helps make the event possible.

I’ll be at both. Sunday I’ll make an appearance on the author’s panel, but I’ll also be tabling all day, selling and signing books and just chatting and answering questions. Come on down and check it all out! Have a good time! And help us celebrate and support the public image of freethought in the state capital!

My Online Course on the Bible Starts Next Week. Join in. Learn Cool Stuff!

How screwed up are the manuscripts of the New Testament? What aren’t Christian preachers and apologists telling the public? How can you know when they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes about what’s in the Bible…or if they even know they are reporting the facts correctly?

How can you tell which Bible translation is the most honest for any given passage?

How have books been transmitted to us from the ancient world two thousand years ago? Is their text reliable enough to trust? Why? Or why not?

Do the Gospels really disagree on when Jesus was born? Do modern Bibles really contain known forgeries? Has the Gospel of Mark been doctored after the fact?

Answers to those questions, and more, will be covered in this course.

But what questions do you have about the New Testament? Like about its formation and transmission, its survival and accuracy, how it’s translated, what Christians claim about what it says. Or any question in the subject of New Testament studies, or the study of Greco-Roman texts generally.

This is your chance to ask an expert and get as full a response as you want, with as much follow up as you want, within the month of February. So join this class and take advantage of it!

Only one course text is required (and you can get it on kindle): my anthology Hitler Homer Bible Christ.

See you there!