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).

Please Donate to the Southwest Secular Student Conference!

Snapshot of the front website page for the conference, showing Heina Dadabhoy, who will be speaking at the event, along with many others.This September the SSA is putting on a conference for students across the U.S. at the Claremont Colleges. They need financial support to pull it off. They will announce a full lineup of speakers and workshops soon, but they already have Heina Dadabhoy, Greta Christina, and Sikivu Hutchinson on deck, and more to come. I’ve been to several. These conferences are generally pretty awesome. So please donate today!

I’ve explained before why the SSA deserves your financial support in general (so if you don’t know, definitely see what I’ve already said about that). Conferences like this are needed to grow the size and number, and improve the effectiveness, of campus groups throughout the Western states (the SSA helps fly student leaders in from campuses all over the West to get trained and motivated at these conferences), to spread reason, secularism, and liberation from religion. And to college students, the future of our country. This is especially needed to combat Campus Crusade for Christ and similar organizations pushing religion onto students.

My readers might like to know in particular that Claremont Colleges is where the innovative New Testament critic Dennis MacDonald holds a professorship, and where Dr. Phil Zuckerman has launched the first college major in Secular Studies in America (and he might be a featured speaker as well). So this is a great rallying point for an SSA conference. Indeed, if you can attend, you might want to! Especially if you want to get more involved in community activism, as a lot of what these conferences cover is how to kick ass at that.

But above all, help spread godless freethought across the colleges of the Southwest by helping support this conference financially. Anything you donate will be useful.

Monster on Sunday! (with Shelley Segal & Steve Hill in San Diego, August 7)

Flyer for the upcoming show discussed in the blog. In addition to the details mentioned there, shows photos of all the artists performing at the event, but otherwise contains all the same info included in the blog text.Earlier this year I got to party on the town with a gaggle of groovy atheist activists in San Diego. And among them was the cool new musical duo Monster on Sunday, Steve and Tally Cass. The both of them were awesome and beautiful company. And I was really keen to hear their first album. Not only because there is a dearth of good hip new atheism-anthem music, but also a dearth of real hard rock in general…

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Help Win Secular Students Week; Play a Board Game with Richard Carrier

Photo of a game in play of Star Trek Catan, which Richard Carrier took while playing with his family.Okay, so. The Secular Student Alliance, one of the best run and most important atheist community organizations we have, is running a fundraiser this week. They want to reach 500 new donors by June 17th. I asked them what minimum donation would count and they said $5. And I said “phhhhllllt!” to that. For my haughty self will only count donors who give at least $35, the minimum to become a supporting member for a year. Because, hey, You Should Join the SSA (At the Very Least!). I mean, if you want to cultivate the best future for atheism, or do not want to live in a world where Campus Crusade for Christ outspends us tenfold on winning over college students. So I’ll ask the SSA after the 17th if they got at least 500 donations of at least $35. And if they do, this is what I’ll do…

I will play a board game with the top five donors who want the pleasure of my gaming company. In person. (Or via live feed if they prefer.) That is, the five who (1) gave the biggest donations and (2) want in on my offer. If you score (1) and (2) on that (and ties will be won by chronological order of donation: s/he who donates first, gets the prize!), then you will get to choose one of the following two options:

  • We can schedule a live feed game anytime that suits us both (I can do Skype, Google Hangout, and Facetime), and you can invite as many other players as you want to join in on your end. This option presents some technical challenges we’d work out in advance (possibly requiring you to also invite one non-player attendee to be my physical proxy for holding cards and moving pieces and whatnot).
  • Every time I will be in your city for any other reason (and you might be able to cajole some local organization(s) to create that reason) I’ll check ahead of time with you if we can arrange a game date, with you and again as many others as you want to invite, until it happens.

The upside of the first option is that it can happen as soon as we have a mutually open schedule. Because the downside of the second option is that it may be a very long time before I pass through your town. The offer is good until fulfilled, though. It is also good for encounters in other cities, but you’d have to let me know about that well enough in advance to see if we can make that work (e.g. if you’ll be attending a conference I’ll also be at, and you bring the game you want to play, etc.).

What board games? Pretty much any tabletop game you have and can teach me to play. Including most card games. I’m already well familiar with various sets of Catan, for example. Depicted above is a photo I took of the state of play of a fun game of Star Trek Catan I enjoyed with my parents and sister recently. I also like some really obscure and complicated things you’ve probably never heard of, like Iron Dragon, Titan, Merchant of Venus (original set; never buy the new one, which they dumbed down to stupidville). Talisman of course. Love Shogun (now known by the stupid name Samurai Swords because a certain novelist was a dick). Oh, hey, and, you know, the game I invented when I was a teenager. Back then I actually used to play Squad Leader a lot, too (and still have an old ASL set). I own some version of Axis and Allies and Conquest of the Empire (sort of a Roman Empire version of Axis and Allies). Various other stuff. Yes, I know how to play Cards against Humanity. And poker. And Scrabble. And traditional Mah Jong. Etcetera Etcetera. But you can teach me stuff, too! Someone recently taught me the delightful game Gloom. So, you know, it can be almost anything you want. (But no Role Playing Games. I’m reserving that get for a special future fundraiser. For this get, it’s board games only, or any card games that aren’t collection based, e.g. I won’t play Magic: The Gathering).

Even if you aren’t into gaming. Help the SSA out and make me proud. To hit their target of 500 donors, and my dream of 500 donors at $35 level or more, tell lots of people about this post, spread the word, especially to any friends you know are into tabletop gaming. And donate yourself. And if you want to try for winning a game meet with me, try to donate a lot!

If you want to know more, the SSA this week is collecting a number of special guest blogs and interviews of am.azing students they’ve helped who have inspiring or fascinating stories about it. Check those out.

* Plus, be aware! If the SSA meets their goal of 500 new donors, they unlock a $20,000 challenge grant! So you have even more incentive to give just something. Even just five dollars! *

Myths of Charity: The Enduring Sham of Arthur Brooks

Photo of an actual Louisiana Disaster Assistance debit card or automated benefit card, produced by the department of social services.Six years ago Arthur Brooks published Who Really Cares (which has gone through several subtitles, from America’s Charity Divide to Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters to The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism). This book is still triumphantly cited by many conservatives and libertarians as proving various dubious things, but especially two in particular: that atheists are less charitable than religious believers, and that privatizing all social welfare would improve social welfare.

But this book is largely a sham. It cooks the numbers and uses devious logical tricks to make it seem as though its conclusions are true, when in fact they demonstrably are not (or at best are demonstrably undemonstrated). A good skeptic doesn’t just believe what she reads; she checks the facts and the logic to make sure she’s not being snowed. Sadly, libertarians (usually men) who cite this book at me (as happened last year in a private communication) are bad skeptics. Because they don’t treat this book skeptically. At all. It just corroborates their ideology, so obviously it can’t be incorrect about anything, and one shouldn’t even think to check if it is.

This struck me the moment that exchange happened: a notable man claimed to me that data in Who Really Cares proves that “the working poor” give “three times more” to charity than anyone “on public assistance” at the same income level, and therefore public welfare makes people less charitable. Of course, right away I was suspicious, since it seems absurd to think someone who can only survive by receiving charity should be expected to give anything to charity. (Can you imagine badmouthing a disabled homeless person dependent on your soup kitchen and group home for not giving anything to charity…that lousy miser!)

But more importantly to today’s lesson, I was immediately suspicious of the statistic. [Read more…]

Help Rescue Our Colleagues from Murderers

Profile photo of Bangladeshi author and activist Taslima NasrinThis is a big one. We’ve been working secretly on rescuing our own Taslima Nasrin from a hit list in her own county and have now gotten her to safety at some continuing expense that we could really use your help with. We would also like to save several other atheist bloggers on the same death list. Perhaps more in similar future circumstances if we can. We’ve worked with the Center for Inquiry on this and they’ve established the Freethought Emergency Fund. CFI has released a detailed press release with everything you need to know about that. And Ed Brayton has now provided more of the back story for those curious about what we did and whom to thank for making this possible.

But here is the gist of what’s needed now and why:

We must take these threats very seriously. Three writers have been viciously murdered in three months, with the last death, that of Ananta Bijoy Das, occurring just a couple of weeks ago.

Because of the very real danger to her life [the murderers are now naming her as their next target], Taslima has decided to leave India. For the indefinite future, to preserve her life, she will need to stay in the United States— where she currently has no job or home.

We at the Center for Inquiry are doing all we can to keep her out of harm’s way. But we need your help.

We’re asking you to Donate Now so Taslima can remain safe in the United States. We will need to provide assistance with food, housing, and the means to get safely settled.

If we raise more than is needed for Taslima, we will use the remainder to establish an emergency fund to help assist other dissidents in similarly perilous situations. Without going into detail, CFI has already been contacted by other writers on the subcontinent who have received threats against their lives and who have requested assistance. We are withholding their names for their own safety.

Donate if you can. Any amount helps, especially if you also spread this around and convince many more to give as much as you did or more. Let’s help save fellow atheists targeted for murder if we can, so they can continue writing and agitating for change in their country through the safety of the internet and a secular society humanist enough to protect them.

Groovy Video Companion to A Better Life

Logo for Chris Johnson's A Better Life (video and book)I just watched Chris Johnson‘s new documentary, A Better Life. The book was already fantastic. Beautiful photography, great interview excerpts, of both famous and everyday atheists with remarkable stories. The video companion lives up to it. This is a must-have addition to anyone’s collection of films documenting atheist thought and experience. When Chris took interviews and photos for his wonderfully plush coffee table book, he also shot beautiful high quality video. And here he stitches the best bits of his interviews together as he explores how atheists find meaning in life without religion, and how and why they left their faiths. And let me tell you, his interview subjects are some awesome gets. From renowned philosopher Patricia Churchland (and her dogs!) to beloved writer and actor Robert Llewellyn (Kryten from Red Dwarf, among a great deal else). And more (Cara Santa Maria, A.C. Grayling, Julia Sweeney, A.J. Johnson, Daniel Dennett, and beyond).

Avoiding Drama = Avoiding the Truth: On Michael Nugent’s Use of His Atheist Ireland Fiefdom to Attack PZ Myers

This is a quick source document for anyone who “hates drama” and doesn’t want to do much work to investigate what all the hubub is about. Why did Atheist Ireland write a dishonest disassociation letter against PZ Myers, and why did gullible nice guy Hemant Mehta fall for it? Details below. [Read more…]

Problems with the Mental Illness Model of Religion

Meme image that says when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity, when many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion, attributing it to Robert PirsigI posted over the past week several criticisms of Peter Boghossian that generally put me off him (especially this). I think he’s not a very good philosopher, and is far too wrong about far too many important things. Yesterday I expanded on one of those criticisms (his failure, perhaps even refusal, to study and thus understand contemporary feminism, expanding on my remarks in Why Atheism Needs Feminism). Today I introduce another, which is another special reading I had prepared for students of the class I co-taught with Boghossian last year (on his book A Manual for Creating Atheists). As with yesterday’s reading, he didn’t interact on the matter, so I don’t know what he thought of it. But again it’s time I just published this for everyone’s benefit, too, and as another corrective to his book.

Many have criticized Boghossian (and not just him, but many others) for arguing that religion should be classified as a mental illness. I believe some of those critiques have merit, and some do not. And those that have merit are largely only apt in what they have to say about the problems of vocabulary, presentation, and lack of nuance and sensitivity in treating the issue. Here are my thoughts on the matter. [Read more…]