the moral consequences of belief in god, or theism necessarily leads to intrinsicism

“As for God, his way is perfect; his word is flawless; he shields everyone who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 18:30)

Religious faith directs the believer to ascribe moral perfection to god and the Bible categorically. In other words, religionists believe that whatever god does and whatever the Bible prescribes are necessarily correct simply because the former is god and latter is his divine word. I have referred to this in previous posts as “giving god a pass” (see here, here, and here).

The basic premise behind a belief in god is affirming that a categorically perfect/infallible being can exist in reality. After such a concept is adopted, it is usually augmented and shaped by the particular scripture to which the believer subscribes (e.g. the Quran, the New Testament, the Torah, et al). This premise is precisely what invigorates the moral intrinsicism which necessarily follows from theism. Without it, religion itself simply implodes.

Such a being is of course chimerical – no different than a square circle or a unicorn – since it not only undermines the very concept of morality itself, but further relies on supposed “knowledge” which is “revealed” apart from that which is rooted in the senses. Such “knowledge” is not received from a divine realm, but is instead manufactured, amounting to little more than a series of faith claims – viz. claims that have no basis or referent in objective reality.

Further, such a being is akin to the cognate of Kantian (deontological) notions of moral “duty.” For Kant, an action is “moral” because it was done out of “duty,” without any consideration of consequences or personal motives. Even if one wants to do a deed – or refrain from doing a deed – because one desires in doing so to be moral, the Kantian perspective holds that such actions have no moral value whatsoever. Kant would also say that if lying is wrong, then it is never okay to lie – even to the Nazis looking for the Jewish refugees hiding in your basement. Consequences do not matter to Kant – only the universality of the moral principle under consideration and the [absence of] motives on the part of the doer.

“Good” produced by “duty,” i.e. without considered motives or consequences, is much like what drives Islamic terrorists to kill “infidels,” Mormon rapists to impregnate underage girls, ultra-orthodox Jews to engage in embezzlement scams, and radical Hindus to behead their wives – to name but a few. The moral rationale adopted by each of them is firmly rooted in moral intrinsicism, i.e. if god commands/allows/permits such actions, then they are by definition morally good and right since god is a categorically perfect being, his word is flawless, and these believers are taking “refuge” in him.

Moral intrinsicism is merely the aggregate of theistic assumptions coming home to roost.

the end of theism

In the early 18th century, Leibniz wrote Théodicée in response to the contentions of Pierre Bayle, a French religious skeptic who, among other things, maintained that reason ultimately led one astray and that a “proof” of the insufficiency of human reason was that compelling philosophical proofs could be offered which undermined the tenets of Christianity entirely – including the persistent presence of evil. Bayle averred that no rational defense could be made for the existence of evil vis-à-vis a Christian conception of god. Leibniz, however, disagreed and offered a defense of god’s existence, goodness, providence, and absolute perfection despite his seeming toleration of evil. In doing so, Leibniz introduced and coined the term theodicy, which has since referred to any attempt to vindicate god qua god in relation to evil and innocent suffering.

I have written elsewhere regarding the origins and development of religious belief from animism to monotheism, and there I stated:

“…removing the possibility of multiple deities in conflict multiplied the already existing problems for monotheism. As we have touched on previously, a singular god is either deficient or immoral (or both).”

This, in a sense, is what I like to call the “brick wall” of monotheism, i.e. that god cannot be either all-powerful or morally good – to maintain one, one must logically give up the other.

One way to try and get around this logical impediment (viz. the “brick wall”) is to try and conceive of god as an impersonal force (much like gravity). However, this route presents its own philosophical problems since implicit in the identification of god with such a force is the admission that it cannot be moral (otherwise there would be no need to reduce god to a force). If god is not morally good in any sense that is relevant to humans, then he cannot represent our highest ideal(s), which necessarily negates any worship of or devotion to him. In fact, if god is neither moral nor all-powerful, and represents no human ideal, then it begs the question: “What good is god?”

Other attempts to sidestep around such brutal moral atrocities as the Holocaust – or any intensely gruesome event marked by dark human brutality – include appeals to the divine will as “mysterious.” However, if the divine will is mysterious regarding the most violent and horrendous (i.e. most obviously immoral) of human actions, then how are we:

(a) able to claim that we understand the divine will regarding any other act, since there seems to be no prime value to anchor a moral system based on theistic beliefs, or

(b) able to look to the divine will for moral guidance in any meaningful way? If no moral guidance may be inferred from god or a belief in his existence, then what purpose can religious belief possibly serve?

This seems to be the end of theism. Any path taken in effort to solve the logical conundrums presented by monotheism only leads to contradictions, begged questions, and conclusions which directly undermine the discussion of god in the first place.

morality without god, or testing god’s goodness

In Euthyphro, one of Plato’s Five Dialogues, a classic dilemma concerning the nature of morality is posed by Socrates:

“Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it considered the pious because it is loved by the gods?”

The word which has been translated as “the pious” is the Greek phrase τὸ ὅσιον, which, despite its pagan and polytheistic etymology, may easily and properly be translated for modern discussion as “the moral.” Additionally, the number of deities is not important to either the strength or nature of the question being posed by Socrates, so it too – again, for the sake of modern discussion – may reasonably be replaced by the singular “god.”

As such, a modern restatement of the Euthyphro Dilemma might be:

If we assume that morality is inextricably linked to the existence of god or is a result of his will as expressed in religious texts, then is moral behavior loved by god because it is moral, or is it considered moral because it is loved by god?

In other words, when someone does something that is considered morally good, how does a religionist assess why it is good? Is the action taken by said person a moral action because it is considered desirable to god? Or does god desire such action because it is morally good?

The entire dilemma is focused on whether morality is something intrinsic to a divine will or extrinsic. If it is intrinsic, as many maintain (viz. “if god commands it, then it is categorically good”), does this mean that rape, genocide, slavery, or theft can be good if it is entailed by divine will? If it is extrinsic, a position which most religionists would reject, does it mean that what is morally good should obligate god as well? And if what is morally good for human beings does not also obligate god, then how can he be said to be categorically good?

Of course, the veracity of this dilemma has been challenged throughout history by religious philosophers and theologians. However, most if not all of their arguments are based on their a priori belief in god and imputing to him various attributes which either excuse him from the dilemma or excuse him from acting morally from a human perspective. The existence of god is simply an untenable proposition in the light of a proper metaphysics and epistemology, and attempts to rationally defend such a belief can be made only if both are subverted to accommodate it. In fact, doing so stems from the medieval Christian tradition of relating to philosophy as the “handmaiden” of theology (i.e. the latter subverted for the sake of the former).

What the dilemma very strongly implies is that morality is not – and cannot – be contingent on the will or existence of god. This means that despite the faith claims of, in the words of Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “Christians and other nihilists,” it is not only possible to be moral apart from a belief in god, but it is necessary to be so. The fact is, most reasonable people – even religionists – in our post-Enlightenment era regularly separate moral goodness from their belief in god, and do so almost as a cultural instinct, as it were. Even attempts by religious believers to justify or contextualize, for example, the genocide often commanded by god in the Bible, is a tacit admittance that genocide is morally objectionable and its presence in the Bible is problematic.

I have written elsewhere about “giving god a pass” – a common (and potentially dangerous) reflex of psycho-epistemological disconnect on the part of religionists. A proper logical test for whether one should accept as morally good a particular behavior as attributed to god, is to simply replace in the scenario with a human being. If one would not accept a given behavior or moral sentiment from even the best human, then there is no basis on which to accept such from god. Unless, of course, one is willing to admit that god is immoral. In this way, god’s goodness may be tested in any case and evaluated while discussing ethics and moral philosophy with religious believers.

The next question is: since morality is necessarily separate from either the existence of god or religious faith, how is moral good determined or derived? Also, prior to this question is: why does humanity needs system of morality or ethics in the first place? I will leave these for another time.

god is testing us?

I have heard many religious people claim that when bad, unfortunate, or tragic events befall us in life, it’s because god is “testing” us. Testing us how and for what reason? The religious answer: to see if we will hold on to our faith in difficult times.

For the psyche of a believer, this answer often makes a bit of sense, especially when one’s individual faith (viz. beliefs disconnected from and/or contradicted by either logic or reality) is threatened by the implication of what is happening around them. If examined critically and objectively, however, such a stated goal is completely ridiculous. Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful being need to “see what happens”? And if the canned religious response is that he doesn’t, but that the devil does, then I refer the reader to my previous post regarding the inescapable dilemma posed by positing a cosmic battle between god and satan.

The fact is that such information is completely useless and seems to be nothing more than the human projection of piety onto the idea of god. Like a figmental cult leader or dictator, god apparently wants to know just how far people will go to hold on to their loyalty toward him; how much cognitive dissonance, intellectual dishonesty, and suspension of reason it will take to drive a person from faith in him. Again, critically speaking, such an enterprise is absolutely bizarre and absurd. What possible purpose could such information serve, especially for a god? Once again, we find that god is either mentally deficient or immoral – or both.

Two classic examples of divine “testing” are found in the biblical narratives of Joseph and Job. Joseph confidently attributes all the abuse, injustice, and suffering that he experienced directly to God (Genesis 45:8), and Job’s suffering was a direct result of god’s apparent need to prove something (Job 1:8-12). In the former case, god is directly responsible while in the latter he is complicit in the destruction and torture of an admittedly righteous man; god accepting the devil’s wager is at human expense. I mean, in the story god willingly allows many human lives to be taken, just to see if Job will crack, like an experiment. That is serious. If a human being did these kinds of things, we would certainly condemn such a person as immoral, and rightfully so. Why, then, does god get a pass? Isn’t he at least as wise and as loving and as decent as we are? Or supposed to be?

In saying this, I am not railing against the presence of bad, tragedy, or negativity in the world (although I do firmly believe that moralizing natural disasters is a mistake; “evil” can only rightly apply to human actions and interactions). Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned through the course of life and the “hard knocks” we receive. In fact, the survival of a species in the world as it is (rather than how we wish it to be) depends on navigating difficulties. However, if what I experience is god “doing” something to me, my family, or my property, then in my view that is even more problematic than if perpetrated by a human being because god is supposed to be better than us. If, however, the environment in which I live presents challenges to me because I am human and because learning is a process, then no moral questions arise and “that’s life.” But if a cosmic being is barraging me directly or by proxy via the devil, then why should I maintain any devotion to him? That seems like an abusive relationship.

A similar line of reasoning is often used by religious people to defend the fact that god never just shows up to make sure people believe in him and choose the right religion, or perhaps to stop all the fighting over which religion or sect is the “true” one if they really are all just fine. Why would god keep us all in suspense? To what end? To “see” what we will choose, or to “see” if humans can figure it out from a murky set of clues? This is a sort of “Russian roulette” with religion being the gun and the bullet being eternal damnation. There is no good, beneficial, coherent, or logical reason for god to demand correct belief while not supplying the means to it.