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…

[Read more…]

Moral Reasoning Course + Bonus Option!

Not only can you join my science & philosophy of moral reasoning course this week (and if you haven’t already, check it out and give it a shot! … or please spread the word to anyone else who might be interested!), but there is now a bonus option you can choose if you want: special live interactive video conferencing.

On Wednesday (16 September 10pm-11pm East Coast time), Sunday (20 September 5pm-6pm East Coast time), and Saturday (26 September 6pm-7pm East Coast time), you can participate in a live video conference with me (and possibly other students) to ask more questions about the course and interact directly. The registration costs more for that feature, but it covers both those live encounters and the whole course.

You can also still take the course without the live video events for the regular rate instead. I’d love to see more students this month! You’ll find the readings and opportunity for productive forum discussion with an expert (and other students) quite valuable and rewarding.

Moral Reasoning Course: Learn the Science & Philosophy of Being a Better Person

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Written from Puerto Rico today, as a tropical storm bears down on us: Come join my online course on moral reasoning! It starts next week. It goes a month. Study and participate at your own pace and on your own time. We don’t just cover the basic philosophy of morality and moral reasoning and why be moral and so on. We also cover what the sciences have discovered about all this. Which is more than you might think! Register now.

And don’t forget to order the required course text (in print or digital), Personality, Identity, and Character (eds. Darcia Narvaez and Daniel Lapsley). I recommend saving money: you can just rent that book on kindle, or buy the kindle edition or a used print copy. All other materials will be provided at no extra cost.


Why take this course?

As I wrote for this course last year, a course that is now tied for my second favorite (I offer it roughly once a year):

[Read more…]

Rare Fine Bound Editions of My Books: Special Auction!

Photograph of the three fine bound volumes in dark brown artificial leather with gold lettering and decoration, standing on Dr. Carrier's desk..Yep. You might want. These are fabulous. And presently unique. But even if duplicated, they will remain extremely rare. I’m giddy at the craftsman’s work on them. They are an aesthetic achievement that harkens back to the old days of leather-bound books in private libraries. And I’m auctioning them off to help support my continuing enterprise as an independent scholar. So I have just two simple questions. Do you want an elegant fine bound hardcover edition of my most popular books? And at the same time to help support my continuing work, research, and activism? Then get in on this rare opportunity!

Summer is always slow for paying gigs. So I need to make up a $2000 shortfall in projected revenue for this quarter if I am to hit my target to get through the year. I have several special things in the works to do that. And this is the first: I have commissioned a local master craftsman and bookbinder to convert three of my books into what you see depicted. I have taken one copy each of Sense and Goodness without God, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Hitler Homer Bible Christ, and had them hand-bound in high quality artificial leather by an expert European craftsman, with gold lettering and styling, and stitched pages. Each will be inscribed personally, by me, in pen, to the auction-winner’s specifications (reasonable requests only, of course).

Any of these lovely books will adorn a library in prestigious fashion, old school, reminiscent of the days when monographs were elegantly crafted. It’s why I made them. Aesthetically, this is what books should always look like. But alas, few publishers produce books that look like this anymore.

Same as before, only the books are scattered and at different angles to see their binding and fronts.Four things to note: [Read more…]

How To Do Wrong Right

Picture of a traffic sign in green with white lettering and border against a cloudy sky, which has arrows pointing both right and left, one labeled Right Way, the other labeled Wrong Way.After my post last month asking for a date the following week, many very positive and some slightly negative things transpired in result. The date went well. I chose a very lovely person who replied to my advertisement awesomely. We hit it off very well and are now in a relationship (mutually open). Others asked me out on future dates that have happened or will. Still others were inspired by my post to strike up an exploratory correspondence from afar, and some of those encounters might become future relationships. The hostility that was generated came mostly from sexists or anti-feminists with weird hangups. Some feminists had problems with it but weren’t hostile. I also received a lot of wonderful support.

This post won’t be about that.

Today I’m going to bring up one particular issue that has come up many times before in my discussions with movement insiders across the spectrum. The meta-question is, how do we draw the line, or even tell the difference, between honest, open, consensual, sex-positive behavior, and behavior that should be criticized and disapproved. But within that umbrella is one particular aspect: everyone screws up from time to time; and we can’t pillory the whole world. So what is a positive and constructive way to deal with correctable error, and what distinguishes that from behavior beyond the pale?

Of course, the Slymepit won’t care about that distinction. Even though they insist they do, they just horribly attack and harass anyone and everyone who ever defends any standard or policy whatever. And regardless of what those of the Slymepit profess, in actual practice they are the scary, amoral nihilists of this movement. They are also beyond facts, reality, or reason. So this post is not intended to educate them. They are uneducable.

Who I’m writing for now, is everyone else. [Read more…]

Some Good Stuff on Social Justice Responsibility

Thank you, David Wong and Miri Mogilevsky!

A girlfriend tipped me off to David Wong’s really amusing and spot-on 101 on why social justice (particularly regarding structural racism and sexism) is not about white guilt but about fixing what our ancestors broke. Check out 5 Helpful Answers to Society’s Most Uncomfortable Questions to see what I mean (and yes, this is impressively educational and insightful for an article at Cracked!). That’s really elegantly written. Funny. Apt. And a much needed summary of what many of us take for granted but find hard to explain so well. Required reading for anyone who doesn’t already get it (but wants to), and rewarding reading for anyone who already does!

As it happens, just by chance, Miri Mogilevsky also published a really excellent article at DailyDot [Read more…]

Katherine Cross on Tone Policing

Katherine Cross has written an excellent piece on distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate tone policing: Words for Cutting: Why We Need to Stop Abusing The Tone Argument. The article is a valuable read all through. Do not regard my summary here as its replacement. My aim is only to expand on it.


Cross makes two overarching points. One is that though intention is not magic, it does matter (as she says, it’s still data). And we should acknowledge that. I shall have nothing to say about that; it’s obviously correct (see Dan Fincke). The other is that while it is legitimate to denounce tone policing in many cases (and not only because it’s a fallacy), this should not become a non-circumstantial rule that applies to every instance, as if all tone policing were bad. It’s not.

Within that overarching point she makes the following supporting points:

  • Tone policing someone who is defending the oppressed or victimized is often illegitimate. Because when someone does that, “while they claim to be attacking tone, they are actually attacking the message, and often as not the very identity of the messenger.” This is thoroughly explained at GeekFeminismWiki. In these cases, tone isn’t really the issue. It’s just being used to silence someone or avoid addressing the point they are making. And that’s wrong. If you try to do that, you deserve to get called out on your shit. Own it. Then stop it. And do better in future. (I think this can also be done in ignorance—not just as a deliberate tactic, but out of not appreciating the context that evokes a particular tone, as I noted in the case of JT Eberhard’s attempt to tone-police Bria Crutchfield two years ago.)
  • Anger and other so-called negative emotions are important and have tremendous personal and social utility (without which, see Miranda). Anger is not irrational. Anger is data and motivation. You can be angry for irrational reasons. But not all reasons to be angry are irrational. Nevertheless, as Cross says, “like any emotion or tool, there are right and wrong ways to deploy it.” Thus, calling someone out for (let’s say) calling for sexists to be killed (even in jest) is not an illegitimate tone argument. That is a fully legitimate tone argument. If you are doing that, your tone is fucked. Sort that shit out.
  • Genuinely censurable tone can include threats, ill-wishing, calls for violence, ad hominems, or just plain abuse (see my article The Art of the Insult & The Sin of the Slur for more on that last point).

In short, in Cross’s words:

To put it simply: sometimes someone is being too angry. Sometimes an activist’s rage is doing more harm than good. Sometimes there is no good being done by it whatsoever. Not every emotion we have is a great strike against oppressive forces. Sometimes you are just being too loud, abusing people verbally, triggering them, and so forth. Sometimes you are just being a jerk and your tone is a fairly reliable indicator of this.

Quite. There are some things I think that could be added, though… [Read more…]

Shermertron the Bigot: Polyamory as the New Reefer Madness

Famous scene screencap from the 1936 film Reefer Madness in which a snearing dope dealer takes a puff in a lounge chair.Lock up your wives and daughters. Polyamorous men are going to seduce them! That’s the new panic emanating from atheist anti-feminists. Along with horror at Bacchic orgies at atheist conferences, and a denigration of sexual liberation as the scourge of society and a sure sign of the decline of public morality. Christian reactionaries? Nope. This is coming from atheists. Seriously.

Anti-feminist atheists are rarely logical and always fact challenged. They live in a bubble of impenetrable mythologies like moon landing deniers and people who vote for Ted Cruz. So none of their reaction to my coming out as polyamorous ought to be surprising. But since one of them is making a lame attempt at harassing my employers, it’s time to document and make fun of it.

The featured villain of the day is some guy (?) who goes by the charming moniker Shermertron. It would be truly awesome if that was actually Michael Shermer but reality is never that sweet. I’m assuming it’s an obsessive Shermer fan. He writes a vile blog called Orwellian Garbage, which is basically just a bunch of illogical rants about me and PZ Myers that rarely contacts reality. His silly & sad sidekick goes by the moniker Yeti’s Roar who does basically the same thing on his own blog (I suppose they could be the same person).

Shermertron and his associates suffer from the following delusions:

  • They can’t tell the difference between sexual harassment and consensual flirting.
  • They can’t tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate ways of pursuing intimacy with someone.
  • They can’t tell the difference between being pleasantly drunk but still in possession of your faculties (and thus fully able to consent when asked) and being so drunk as to not even comprehend what is happening or where exactly you are.
  • They can’t tell the difference between advocating for ethical sexuality and being against all sex.

They are also liars.

If you want the full skinny, then sit down, secure your safety belt and hang on for the ride… [Read more…]

Appearing All Over Southern California Next Week

Photograph of a building fronted by a beautiful waterfall backed by palm trees on the campus of the College of the Desert in Palm Desert California.I will be appearing to speak at numerous venues in Southern California next week and the following week. And of course selling and signing my books. I might also be available for hanging out with nice folk over drinks now and again while I’m around there. Here is the breakdown…

[Read more…]