One thing I find particularly frustrating is reading commentary on theology and philosophy written by scientists. To be fair, some scientists I have read are informed and do offer astute and insightful comments; commonly, however, one finds a person who is undoubtedly brilliant in their own field, writing with confident gusto, articles that fail to understand the most basic theological and philosophical distinctions.
A recent article in USA Today by influential biologist Jerry Coyne is a good example. Coyne, an outspoken atheist, is disturbed that many Americans, including some prominent scientists, believe that our instinctive sense of right and wrong is “strong evidence for [God’s] existence.” He ventures into moral philosophy to explain why this is clearly mistaken.
From the get-go Coyne demonstrates he does not understand the issues.
It is necessary to accurately understand the position Coyne is criticising before we look at the paucity of his critique. The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Yale Philosopher Robert Adams. In it, Adams noted that we instinctively grasp that certain actions, like torturing children for fun, are wrong; hence, he reasoned, we are intuitively aware of the existence of moral obligations. According to Adams, the best account of the nature of such obligations is that they are commands issued by a loving and just God. Identifying obligations with God’s commands can explain all the features of moral obligation better than any secular alternative. Consequently, the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for God’s existence.
It is important to note what Adams did not claim. Central to Adams’ argument, and to pretty much every author who follows him, is a vital distinction; this is the distinction between the claim that moral obligations are, in fact, divine commands and the claim that one cannot recognise what our moral obligations are unless one believes in divine commands or some form of divine revelation. Adams illustrates this distinction with the example of H20 and water.
Contemporary chemistry tells us that the best account of the nature of water is that water is, in fact, H20 molecules. This, of course, means that water cannot exist unless H20 does. However, it does not mean that people who do not know about or believe in the existence of H20 cannot recognise water when they see it. For centuries people recognised, swam in, sailed on and drank water before they knew anything about modern chemistry.
This distinction has important implications. The claim that moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God does not entail that people must believe that God exists and has issued commands in order to be able to recognise right and wrong. These are separate and logically distinct claims.
Coyne conflates this distinction from the outset. After noting that some people believe that moral obligations provide strong evidence for God’s existence, he claims that this is an oft-heard argument, “‘Evolution,’ many argue, ‘could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality…’;” to this he rejoins that, “scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviours that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness.”
This is confused. Apart from the fact that no one who cites morality as evidence for God actually makes the argument about evolution that Coyne sets out, the claim that moral obligations cannot exist independently of God is not the claim that without God people would not have moral feelings. Feeling that one has an obligation to do something and actually having an obligation to do it are clearly different things. People can feel that they have a certain obligation without it actually being the case that they do.
Coyne makes a similar mistake when he argues that secular European countries like Sweden and Denmark “are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.” This may well be true but all it shows is that people can recognise moral obligations and live in accord with them without believing in God. That no more shows that moral obligations can exist without God or that moral obligations are not divine commands than the fact that for centuries people could recognise water and swim without knowing anything about modern chemistry shows that water can exist without hydrogen.
Coyne equally fails to address the issue when he asserts that the bible endorses beating slaves, genocide, killing homosexuals, torturing people for eternity, killing children for being cheeky and so on; texts he claims Christians pass over “with judicious silence”. Apart from the fact that Coyne’s interpretation of these texts is in many places dubious and that far from passing over them in silence, Christian theologians working in the field of Old Testament ethics have written voluminous works on how these passages are to be understood, Coyne’s argument here misses the point. The claim that moral obligations cannot exist independently from the existence of a just and loving God is not the claim that the bible is an accurate source of information about what God commands. Someone could, for example, argue that the wrongness of an action is constituted by God’s commands but that we know and recognise what is right and wrong from our conscience and not from a written revelation. Some leading writers on theological ethics have suggested precisely this.
The only time Coyne is remotely on point is when he argues that if moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands then morality becomes arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God has commanded it – even stealing or infanticide. Coyne suggests this argument is devastating and has known to be so by philosophers for hundreds of years.
In fact, since Adams’ publication, this argument has been subject to extensive criticism in the philosophical literature. So much so that today even Adams’ leading critics grant that it fails. Adams contended that moral obligations are, in fact, the commands of a loving and just God; therefore, it is possible for infanticide or theft to be right only if a fully informed, loving and just person could command things like infanticide and stealing. The assumption that this is possible seems dubious. The very reason Coyne cites examples such as infanticide and theft is because he considers them to be paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever knowingly entertain or endorse.
Coyne seems vaguely aware of the response, stating “Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.” Here he again falls into confusion. What his response shows is that people can have ideas about and recognise what counts as loving and just independently of their beliefs about God and his commands. Now this is true but this does not show that moral obligations can exist independently of the commands of a loving and just God. Coyne again fails to grasp the basic distinctions involved in discussions of God and morality.
Not only does this argument not refute Adams position but precisely analogous reasoning provides a serious challenge to Coyne’s own secular account of morality. After claiming that moral obligations cannot be constituted by God’s commands, Coyne offers an alternative: morality comes from “evolution”, humans evolved a capacity to instinctively feel certain actions are wrong and others are right. But couldn’t evolution have produced rational beings that felt that infanticide and theft were obligatory or that rape was, in certain circumstances, ok? As Darwin himself noted,
“If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”
Coyne faces a dilemma. If the fact that it is possible for God to have commanded that infanticide is permissible proves that morality is not based on God’s commands then the fact it is possible for evolution to have produced rational beings who feel infanticide is permissible must prove that morality is not dependent on evolution.
Believers of God can avoid this conclusion for the reasons I pointed to above; it is unlikely that a loving and just person could command actions such as infanticide or rape whereas, evolution, guided only by the impersonal forces of nature, is not subject to such constraints. Coyne’s argument does not refute Adams’ position but it does appear to refute his own.
Now nothing I say in response to Coyne here is new, much of it has been said in the voluminous literature on God and Morality written and published over the last forty years. All Coyne had to do to realise this was actually read it. Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism. He has not and pretending he has is about as sensible as pretending that because I am a theologian I can offer informed commentary on contemporary genetics off the top of my head.
Matt writes a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the October 2011 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
Contra Mundum: Separating Church and State
Contra Mundum: Consenting Adults and Harm
Contra Mundum: Pacifism and Just Wars
Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence
Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers
Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage
Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus