September 14, 2014

If ISIS’s God Were Real, Would I Be Obliged to Follow Him?

Dear Dr Craig,

You may be aware that Frank Turek has a question he will sometimes ask atheists, "if Christianity were true, would you become a Christian"? Well, recently, an atheist flipped this question around and asked me "If the Islamic State were true (by which he means, if the specific type of Allah that IS believe in, existed) then likewise, would you become an IS member?"

Now, my gut reaction is to say no. I would not follow a God whom I find so horrendous as to condone rape, mass murder and forced conversion such as we're seeing happen right now in the Middle East.

Two problems arise, however:

Firstly, if I say this, the atheist can simply reply, "exactly! And now I'm sure you're aware how I feel too. Even if your Christian God existed, I would not follow him, because I find certain things about his morality horrendous and objectionable". This would seem a conversation stopper.

But, secondly, there seems an even greater problem:

From my understanding of Divine Command Theory (DCT), it seems the response I ought to give, is "yes, under such circumstances I should become an IS member". After all, if moral ontology is ultimately based in the character of God, then if the real God who existed after all was the IS God, and not the Christian God, then I would have no intellectual alternative other than to bite the bullet and treat his character as the paradigm of Moral Goodness. Rape etc really would be good, if their God existed, and if the principle of DCT applies.

This has got me very worried about DCT, because it seems an inadequate principle for grounding morality. It seems to commit the fallacy of trying to get an "ought" from an "is". i.e. it moves from "a particular God exists", to "therefore we ought to treat that God's character as the paradigm". This principle seems woefully inadequate, because it can be applied regardless of the actual content of God's character (or , to phrase it another way, it can be applied to any God that a person is convinced exists). In this specific case, it can be applied to both the Christian God and the IS God, and the only determining factor would be which one of those Gods actually exists (as Sam Harris put it in your debate with him, it boils down to "sorry, Buster, you've got the wrong God")!

Or, think of it this way. Consider the following 5 statements:

The content of God's necessary character is (A)

The content of God's necessary character is (B)

The content of God's necessary character is (C)

The content of God's necessary character is (D)

The content of God's necessary character is (E)

Obviously, these statements cannot all be true (especially since we're dealing with something which is the same in all possible worlds). At most, only one of them can be true.

However, the problem is, there seems no basis for why any of them should be true over the others.

Under DCT, we cannot invoke that horn of the Euthyphro dilemma which claims there to be moral truths independent of God's character. For example, if character (B) is such that God condones rape, mass killings and forced conversion, and character (D) is such that God is all-loving and forbids these things, we cannot appeal to an external moral standard to judge (D) to be greater than (B), and therefore declare (D) to be the existent one. This is because, apart from there being no such external standard anyway according to DCT, if (B) were true, then the mere existence of this particular God would establish him as the standard itself, against which all other characters, including the all-loving (D) character, would be deficient, or “not as great”.

If we, as Christians, try to argue that (D) must be true because that God's character is "greatest" then it seems we're either reasoning in a circle (i.e. God (D) exists because (D) is the greatest character, because God (D) exists), or we're conceding a horn of Euthyphro's dilemma - that God's necessary character is nonetheless determined by its matching up to a standard beyond God himself. Even if we want to appeal to the concept of God as a "Maximally Great Being" to try to settle the matter, God's own character establishes the paradigm of what moral "greatness" is (this is unlike other Great Making Properties, such as power, necessity, and knowledge, because in those cases God is being measured against how he relates to things other than himself: i.e. whether or not he can do 100% of possible actions, exist in 100% of possible words, and know 100% of true propositions etc).

So it all seems to boil down to "whichever God exists, that God's character is the paradigm of Goodness".

Notice that it is not adequate simply to say that because our God, the Christian God, is necessarily existent, therefore such a hypothetical situation shouldn't trouble us, given we're convinced of Christianity's truth. The challenge I'm levelling is at the principle of DCT itself. We can still run the thought experiment, and imagine (just as we ask atheists and Muslims to imagine) "what if it were shown to me that I was wrong? What if, epistemically, I'd been mistaken and had the wrong God, what would the implications be of the DCT principle"?

Indeed, this seems an instance where moral epistemology and ontology overlap significantly (usually I see apologists such as yourself going to a lot of trouble to clarify the differences between them and to keep them apart). We can test the ontological principle of DCT by asking "what if, epistemically, I were wrong about which God actually exists"?

It seems we also must ask the question, "what if, epistemically, I am mis-comprehending particular moral values and duties"? This would have to be the case if the IS God existed, because his moral ontology would trump our personal moral epistemology - i.e. we would have to revise our understanding of good and evil to allow for certain legitimate instances of rape, mass killing, and forced conversions.

Lest this seem like an outlandish situation to imagine, however, don't forget that we ask atheists and Muslims etc to do this all the time! Frequently, we challenge moral views held by unbelievers that they use to argue against God, and we suggest that maybe they're mistaken in their moral epistemology. Indeed, Christianity itself does this. It says that humans, despite being made in the image of God and with his law written on our hearts, are nonetheless damaged and flawed in our values and morals, and that we need to transform these over the sanctifying course of our lives to be more like Christ (i.e. when push comes to shove, God's moral ontology must have authority over our moral epistemology - we can't dig our heels in and insist that he's wrong, if he really exists and is the paradigm). Does our epistemic, moral apprehension have any role to play here that is not special pleading or circular?

So, with all these concerns on my shoulders, imagine my worry about what to say to this atheist! If I say "yes, if the IS God existed, he would be Goodness itself, and I'd have to follow him", you can imagine how he'd respond: "See! Look what warped slaves you theists are! You'd just blindly follow God because he's God"! Quoting Sam Harris again, from your debate, the atheist would probably assert "I, on the other hand, can get behind that God, and condemn him".

If DCT really is a sound theory, then I must be missing something or not understanding it.

And all that from such a simple question!

Many thanks,


United Kingdom

Anonymous, I can’t help but observe that you seem to be emotionally caught up in this objection. I think the first thing that needs to be done, then, is to try to disentangle your emotions from the philosophical issues at stake here. Then you will be able to think more clear-headedly about the arguments.

It seems to me that apart from the psychological twist which the atheist objector puts on the argument, there’s nothing essentially new here that hasn’t been already addressed by divine command theorists, including myself. By “the psychological twist” I mean framing the question in terms of your personal reaction to the situation. As I have pointed out in response to other such psychological questions (e.g., “If the bones of Jesus were found, would you give up Christian faith?”), questions of this sort are of no more than autobiographical interest. It is of no philosophical significance what I would do or believe under certain conditions. What is philosophically relevant is what I should do under such conditions. By framing the question psychologically, the objector puts the believer in a psychologically tortuous condition which distracts from the real issues.

This psychological way of framing the question is thus nothing more than a rhetorical ruse. This ruse becomes especially evident in a case like yours where the believer is asked what he would do in a logically impossible situation, a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world which could not possibly be actual.

In Turek’s hands, the question is also purely psychological. It is not a philosophical argument for anything. It is an evangelistic tactic to measure the openness of one’s interlocutor. If we sense that the unbeliever is merely throwing up smokescreens, not sincere questions or objections, it can sometimes be useful to simply stop the conversation and ask, “If you were convinced that Christianity is true, would you then be willing to become a Christian?” His answer will be of no philosophical or apologetical importance, but it may be of great importance evangelistically, namely, it might suggest that you are dealing with a completely closed-minded person who would not be open to God even if he knew for a fact that God existed. With such a person the evangelist might reassess whether apologetic arguments are really the best strategy for winning this person; perhaps friendship evangelism would be more effective in opening his heart.

So in assessing the philosophical issues at stake here, let’s strip the objection of the psychological twist which the objector has put on it. It seems to me that when we do so, the question is a familiar one: “If God were to command __________ (where the blank is to be filled with the name of some moral atrocity), would we be obligated to do ___________?” In your example, we may fill the blank with “rape, mass murder and forced conversion.”

In answering such a question, we need to keep in mind that there are two types of divine command theory: voluntaristic and non-voluntaristic. On voluntaristic theories God’s commands are based upon His free will alone. He arbitrarily chooses what values are good or bad and what our obligations and prohibitions are. It seems to me that the voluntarist has no choice but to bite the bullet, as you say, and affirm that had God so chosen, then we would be obligated to engage in rape, mass murder, and forced conversion.

Now apart from one’s emotional reaction to this claim (a reaction which the voluntarist will say is entirely appropriate, since God has, in fact, decided that these things are evil and therefore morally abhorrent), is there a philosophical problem for the voluntarist here? Well, it seems to me that the objection is best framed by saying that we have modal intuitions that certain moral values and duties are broadly logically necessary and so could not be merely contingently valid, as voluntarism seems to imply. There are countermoves which the voluntarist might make here, but let us not pursue this rabbit trail, since I don’t know of a single divine command theorist today who is a voluntarist.

Most divine command theorists are non-voluntarists who hold that moral values are not grounded in God’s will but in His nature. Moral duties are grounded in His will or commands; but moral values are prior to His will, since God’s own nature is not something invented by God. Since His will is not independent of His nature but must express His nature, it is logically impossible for Him to issue certain sorts of commands. In order to do so, He would have to have a different nature, which is logically impossible.

In this case, Anonymous, your answer to the atheist’s question should not be the answer the voluntarist must give. Rather, you should say, “That’s logically impossible. That’s like asking, ‘If there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides?’ The question has no answer because what it envisions is a logical impossibility.”

A subjunctive conditional (or counterfactual) statement with a logically impossible antecedent clause has, on the customary semantics for such conditionals, only a vacuous truth value. Both of the following turn out to be vacuously true:

1. If God were to command rape, mass murder, and forced conversion, then we would be obligated to commit such acts.

2. If God were to command rape, mass murder, and forced conversion, then we would not be obligated to commit such acts.

You may wonder how both of these could be true, but that is simply the point of saying that they are vacuously true: the truth value here is of no significance.

So on the customary semantics, your friend’s question just has no meaningful answer, anymore than the question about how to calculate the area of a square circle.

Now I personally think that some counterfactuals with impossible antecedents do have significant truth values. For example, I think that the following statement is non-vacuously true:

3. If God did not exist, the universe would not exist.

Similarly, I think it is non-vacuously true that

4. If God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.

But that does not commit me to the non-vacuous truth of a counterfactual like

5. If God had a different nature [or if a different God existed], then His commands would constitute my moral duties.

Such a God is like the square circle, so that any meaningful inference is impossible.

Finally, even if the non-voluntarist were to admit the truth of a counterfactual like (5), I think he could just shrug this off with the comment, “So what? It’s just a logical absurdity.” It’s as if someone were to ask Plato, “What if the content of the Good were changed? Would it then be good to rape, etc.?” The question is absurd.

So I don’t think there’s any problem here for the non-voluntarist.

But then, Anonymous, you begin to muddy the waters by bringing in epistemic considerations, which are not relevant to the truth or coherence of divine command theory. You ask, “What if, epistemically, I'd been mistaken and had the wrong God, what would the implications be of the DCT principle?” It is logically impossible that there be any other God. So if you were mistaken and believed in the wrong God, you would be a Muslim or a Hindu or a polytheist or what have you; but there wouldn’t be another God. Remember: on perfect being theology, God is a maximally great being, a being which is worthy of worship. Lesser beings are not “Gods” at all. In fact, in my debates with Muslim theologians, this is one of the arguments I use against the Islamic conception of God: that Allah cannot be the greatest conceivable being because he is not all-loving and therefore cannot be God.

Thus, it is no part of divine command ethics to claim that “whichever God exists, that God's character is the paradigm of Goodness.” (I’ll bet you couldn’t find such a statement in the work of any divine command theorist.) There is only one greatest conceivable being with the nature He has, and there just are no such things as these “Gods” with different natures. Maybe that’s the source of your misunderstanding: no divine command theorist holds to what you call the DCT principle.

So while the “You’ve got the wrong God” response is a good sound bite, it must be properly understood. The idea is that moral values are based in God, but if your concept of God is inadequate, then your ethics are going to be messed up. The problem lies in a defective concept of God.

I think you are falling prey to the all too familiar confusion of the order of knowing (ordo cognoscendi) and the order of being (ordo essendi). In the order of knowing, our knowledge that certain things are good or evil, right or wrong is typically prior to our knowledge of God. But in the order of being, God is prior to what is good or evil, right or wrong. So when we recognize that the Muslim concept of God is defective, that recognition is based on our prior moral knowledge. We have a good idea of what is morally great-making independent of our knowledge of God. That's unproblematic, so long as one is talking about the order of knowing rather than the order of being. God's being prior in the order of being doesn't make Him prior in the order of knowing.

So what should you say to the atheist who asks, “If the God of ISIS existed, would you engage in rape, murder, and forced conversions?” Neither “yes” nor “no”! You should say, “Such a question (apart from being a psychological irrelevancy) has no meaningful answer, any more than does the question, ‘If there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides?’ because both posit logical absurdities.” This is a pseudo-dilemma in which you should not be caught. Tell him you base your morality on the character of the greatest conceivable being—what could be better?