If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right… On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn’t forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.-William Lane Craig
The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley’s ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what’s right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.
Let’s consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn’t just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can’t have that.
This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig’s worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it’s not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that’s necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.
However, it’s difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I’ve already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we’re supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.
It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don’t just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won’t appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don’t see what she sees?
When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn’t think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god’s nature?
William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he’s explained in numerous debates, that god’s nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god’s nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god’s nature is consistent with these heinous acts – if he has permitted them to take place – why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?
Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky – “without god, everything is permitted” (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it’s actually Dr. Craig’s worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted… just don’t lead others into temptation. Paul’s opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.
Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, “ethics is illusory,” Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On th
e contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview. God’s nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we’re to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil.
This is why William Lane Craig’s excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god’s nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig’s view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil.
Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”. As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.
There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don’t think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig’s Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and – to bring things back around to where we started – history also records the terrible things god has permitted.
In conclusion, I’m not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist – a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig’s view of morality? It can’t mean that god’s nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can’t mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is “god says no to rape in this instance”. Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview.
What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.
Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.
When you get to God you’ve reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.
It’s well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:
According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good reasons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God’s existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Anselmian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:(S1) ‘God exists.’
(S2) ‘God is omniscient.’
(S3) ‘God is omnipotent.’
(S4) ‘God is morally good. ‘
Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-conditions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory – a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience – would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.
Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, ReasonableFaith.org (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Sophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).
For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God’s reason and not man’s that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]
To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.
Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn’t think divine command theory – the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good – fares any better.
…a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something’s being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. ‘God is good’ no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so ‘God is good’ still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what ‘good’ means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use ‘God is good’ and ‘God is Perfectly Good.’
To treat the statement ‘god is good’ as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on “Metaphysical Ethics” in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.
As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what ‘good’ means. Even in tautological statements like ‘Wives are women’ and ‘Triangles are three-sided’, we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If ‘god is good’ is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don’t understand what ‘good’ means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: “Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality.”
The general point behind the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ remark is that atheists believe more fantastical things on less evidence than theists do; we make more and bigger assumptions. Is this true, though? To really address the issue, one would have to unpack the particular assumptions each believer thinks atheists rely upon, but we’ve already seen some indication that not all of these assumptions are fairly derived from the atheist position. Atheists of the ancient world knew nothing of the Big Bang or evolution by natural selection, yet still counted themselves non-believers for other reasons like suffering, divine hiddenness, and the various objections to the so-called arguments for god. By itself, atheism says nothing about the origin of the universe, the nature of morality, and so forth. To be an atheist is simply to not believe in gods.
Now, you might ask, ‘If you don’t know how the universe began, why are you an atheist instead of an agnostic?’ It seems to me that there is a long-running misunderstanding about these two terms. A theist is one who believes god exists. An agnostic is one who doesn’t know if god exists. An atheist is one who does not believe god exists. Here the agnostic might seem like a middle ground, but it becomes clear that this is not the case when we recognize the difference between belief and knowledge. For centuries, philosophers have understood knowledge as justified true belief, which would make knowledge a very special kind of belief. Although there are some problems with the justified true belief definition, they do not impact this distinction between knowledge and belief. You can believe something and not be justified in believing it, and you can also believe something which is not actually true. Thus, agnostic is more like a subset of theism and atheism, where an agnostic theist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, but believes anyway, and an agnostic atheist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, and so does not believe. Hence, I’d technically call myself an agnostic atheist.
‘But,’ you say, ‘god explains how the universe began. It takes less faith to believe that then it does to believe we came from nothing without a god.’ Recall what has just been said about belief and knowledge, though. I don’t know how the universe came about, but I do believe the god explanation is not a good explanation, largely because the concept of god has its own share of philosophical challenges and problems. This is no more an inconsistency than it is to believe in god even when you don’t know for sure if he exists. This is where the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ charge is really stretched thin to the point of breaking, too.
Theists may see god, the Big Bang, moral values, and similar things as inextricably bound together, but these are assumptions which the atheist has no reason to grant. History has seen plenty of gods that are not creators or moral law-givers, so why assume that things like origins and moral values are even in the same ball park with theism and atheism? I make no assumptions about how the universe began, or about the nature of morality, nor do I need to in order to consistently be an atheist. My atheism is not directed at some abstract cause of the cosmos, or some vague ground of moral value; it’s directed at the concept of god, which is so much more, and has been understood as much more by many theists throughout the centuries. Who has faith in just a cause of the cosmos, or just the ground of morality?
The charge that atheism takes more faith than theism rests on a fallacy of equivocation. The faith that the Christian has in his god – faith that impels him to repent, to forgive, to love, to praise, to worship – is by no means the same as the faith that atheists are accused of having with respect to a creatorless origin, eternal matter, life from non-life, or moral value. If faith is belief based on evidence, then saying the atheist has more of it should mean the atheist has more evidence! If faith is belief in spite of evidence, is that really all that Christians mean when they say their faith gives them strength – believing in spite of the evidence gives you strength? If faith by itself is a virtue, then those who decry atheism for requiring too much faith are quite confused. If faith is only virtuous insofar as it is focused in the right direction (and god presumably lies at the end of that direction), then the equivocation is made readily apparent.
Individual atheists may have faith in many things. A scientist may take it on faith that our universe is just one among many. A philosopher may take it on faith that Leibniz’s theory of the monads accurately describes the fundamental constitution of the universe. But in what sense are these uses of “faith” at all like the theistic use of faith? I would say there is very little, if any, commonality. Multiverses and monads (according to some conceptions) would not be a new kind of thing to our experience in the way that god is a new kind of thing, existing eternally and outside of our space-time universe. If all our beliefs rest on faith, if everything is faith, as Greg Boyd suggested in a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, we reduce the religious concept of faith to a mere act of inference, and we muddle the concept of inference with a term that defies clarity and fecundity. This I take to be a lose-lose scenario.