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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In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field

The title of this article is a joke. Sort of. But maybe not as much as you think. As I’ll show. Because James McGrath has added another entry to his bizarrely uninformed critique of On the Historicity of Jesus, and this time is the most dishonest of the bunch. For to get the result he wants, he has to essentially become a Christian fundamentalist, denying there is any mythmaking in the Gospels at all, and reject all non-fundamentalist scholarship of the last fifteen years.

I kid you not.

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Tim Hendrix on Proving History

Tim Hendrix wrote a critical analysis of my book Proving History two years ago, and recently made it available online. Coincidentally I also just discovered a review of the book in College & Research Libraries Reviews, which had been published in June of 2012 (pp. 368-69). That was only one long paragraph, but I was surprised it understood the book and took a positive angle on it, concluding:

The use of a mathematical theorem to establish reliable historical criteria can sound both threatening and misguided. However, Carrier describes and defends the theorem in layman’s terms, demonstrates that historians actually think in terms of probabilities while rarely quantifying them, shows how all other axioms and rules in historical methodology are compatible with the theorem, and then gives it a practical workout on recent studies on the historicity of Jesus … [in which] Carrier shows how the criteria for judging whether or not Jesus was a historical figure (coherence, embarrassment, multiple attestation, contextual plausibility, etc.) are replaceable by Bayes’s Theorem, which “if used correctly and honestly . . . won’t let you prove whatever you want, but only what the facts warrant.”

Hendrix (who has a Ph.D. relating to Bayesian studies) gives it a much closer look on its technical aspects in applying Bayes’ Theorem. There are some issues of grammar that suggest English might not be Hendrix’s first language (he also uses British spelling conventions), but his writing is good enough to work around that (most of the time).

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Euhemerization Means Doing What Euhemerus Did

Photograph of a marble statue depicting Euhemerus as a bearded toga wearing bare shouldered man in thoughtful pose.Just a quickie today. Several people have asked this question in one form or another:

I’ve read a number of people who claim that your use of the term “euhemerization” is incorrect. These typically give definitions along the lines of the following in Wikipedia: “Euhemerism is an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages.” This is consistent with what you say about Euhemerus in Element 14 [of On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 114-24], but in Element 45 [Ibid., p. 222] you use the term in the inverted sense, [whereby] people were invented based on gods, rather than gods being invented based on people.

I do wonder where the confusion arose among people (and I’ve seen a lot of them online) thinking euhemerization means turning a real person into a god. That’s not euhemerization. That’s deification. Julius Caesar was deified. He was not euhemerized. Euhemerized gods are always historically non-existent.

Obviously the word “euhemerize” means doing what Euhemerus did. That’s what the word means. Even just in its grammar (the -ize suffix in Greek and English means “to do like,” hence “to do like Euhemerus did”). But also in how it originated and why. Euhemerus took celestial (ahistorical) gods (Zeus and Uranus) and then turned them into historical men. Not the other way around. Therefore, anyone who does that is doing what Euhemerus did. They are therefore euhemerizing a god. Just as Euhemerus “euhemerized” Zeus and Uranus.

I don’t know why anyone thinks otherwise. Or how it would even make sense to think otherwise. But maybe this is what’s confusing people…

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Christians Freaking Out Over Freedom: Polyamory Edition

Photo Dr. Carrier took of his bottle and glass of wine at the airport. Venue menu on the table reads Carlolina Vintages. Bottle label reads Restless Soul Red Table Wine, from Old North State Winery. Label depicts drawing of a rising skeleton's arm lifting up a glass of wine.So when I came out as polyamorous in February, the godless Slymepit blew a gasket. But so did Christians. Their freakout was quaint. And hardly substantive. So I just filed it as something to amuse over when I had time. Now as I sit for hours in the Raleigh-Durham airport awaiting my flight home, drinking a lovely bottle of Carolina wine from the Old North State Winery, what better fun than to survey the Christian panic over poly?

First I’ll summarize a sample of some of what happened, then delve into a long treatment of the most thoughtful (albeit still totally wrong) example…

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Don’t Be Explicit in Other People’s Spaces: An Apology

This is an apology for a mistake I made. In a comment thread on Ophelia Benson’s blog about the effects of porn on unwanted violence in the bedroom, I gave as examples for my own points relating to that cases from my own personal sexual experience, which despite one content warning nevertheless got too detailed and explicit for Benson and many of her readers.

I became too defensive when attacked over that and I handled the whole matter poorly. I was too blinded by defensiveness in fact to adequately see things from other people’s perspective. Although some people appreciated what I wrote, and I value their perspective too, others who’s opinions I also respect did not, and that caused me to reexamine everything and (I hope) recognize where I went wrong and what to do about it.

I don’t want to distance myself from the people who thanked me, who included people who feel isolated from what men actually think or can think about sex and were glad to have access to it for a change, and people who deal with being attacked and demeaned and shamed for their fetishes and kinks and were thus understandably defensive about people seeming to attack and demean and shame me for the same.

But there are better ways to serve those needed ends. And I understand that now. I am always very frank and open about my sexlife. And I am often surrounded by people who are the same, and who appreciate that. So I too easily forget the world does not live in that bubble. And I didn’t realize the significance of that before now.

Explicit content is not universally wrong. It can even still serve the purposes I originally stated there and intended. And I may blog separately about that, in a better way. But content warnings are necessary for that even in your own space. And they aren’t sufficient in another’s space. You need to know it’s permitted there first, that it will be acceptable. And I now realize it’s your responsibility to check that beforehand. Because what results if you don’t can affect people badly in ways you don’t intend and wouldn’t want.

To all of those people who were harmed by my actions, I apologize. I did not want to cause harm, and regret having done so. This is another mistake in my life I shall endeavor to improve myself on and not make again. And I thank those whose remarks helped me to see that.

There are better ways to advocate for wider acceptance of sexuality and sexual diversity, and better ways to discuss the impact of porn on our lives too.

41 Reasons We’re, Like, Totes Sure Jesus Existed!

Photo of James Bishop about town, young rugged man in a blue toque, white t-short and grey vest, hip beard.People often ask me about Christian apologist James Bishop’s “41 Reasons Why Scholars Know Jesus Really Existed.” Because it’s the highest number of reasons anyone has attempted to claim (apart from the 10/42 apologetic, which Matthew Ferguson thoroughly annihilated).

This piece doesn’t try that. Thank the Lords of Kobol! But it is still a travesty of being lost in the bubble of Christian distortion, of course. Bishop is in South Africa studying theology at college, and says enthusiastic things like, “I wish to exercise my faith in a powerful manner to reach as many people as possible.” Aww.

I’ll just be brief and explain where everything he says has already been refuted. So here we go… [Read more…]

Defining the Supernatural vs. Logical Positivism

In working slowly through a gigantic backlog of blog comments, I met with one that goes back to an old school question, about my project to demarcate the natural and the supernatural. The comment by Enlightenment Liberal is here. He is asking questions about the conclusion I argued here and in print here (with a followup here). The first, Defining the Supernatural, supports the others, Defining Naturalism I and II. His perspective can be summarized as “If we grant your definitions of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, I think that all hypotheses of the form ‘X is supernatural’ entail absolutely zero observable predictions about the world,” in particular because “I think that I have absolutely no basis to conclude that there is any relation or correlation at all between the fundamental nature of things and the observable nature of things,” in accordance with Logical Positivism.

So, is he right? Let’s explore… [Read more…]

Everyone Is a Bayesian

Greg Mayer posted at Jerry Coyne’s blog on “Why I am not a Bayesian.” In his explanation, he goes wrong at three key points. And they are illustrative of common mistakes people make in trying to understand or apply Bayesian reasoning. In reality, Mayer is a Bayesian. He just doesn’t understand why. Here is the breakdown. [Read more…]