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A Fool’s Game

I sometimes get comments on my blog (thanks to those who comment) from people who try to defend their religion against my attacks. That’s fair enough and I have to admit that it’s not always obvious how false some of the points these people make are until I do some extra research.

One philosophical point which is interesting is that a higher power (and by default I guess most people mean the Christian god) is needed to impose morality on us, and that because most people know what is right and wrong that there must be a higher power who has created these rules. But of course there are other ways that the rules could have arisen and I have listed these in previous discussions.

In this blog post I want to show that, even if you assume some sort of supernatural entity exists, that you still can’t rely on that entity (god, whatever) as a source of morality.

I recently listened to a podcast (you may have noticed that a large fraction of my blog posts start this way) from the excellent “Point of Inquiry” series which took the form of an interview with Ronald Lindsay who has just published a book titled “The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do” which made this point.

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments he made regarding why, even if a god did exist (and all indications are that he doesn’t), he could never be a source of morality…

First, there is Plato’s classic logical argument (I’ve seen this many times before and never heard a good response to it). In Plato’s dialog, Socrates asks if something is good (or moral) because a god says it is, or does god say it is moral because it has some intrinsic good?

For example, if we are told not to tell lies, does that mean because God tells us not to lie then it is automatically bad, or is it because lying is bad so God tells us not to do it? Either way the god figure is unnecessary or inconsistent. Here’s why…

If god approves of something because it’s good then there must be some other independent standard apart from the god which makes it good, so who cares what god thinks? We don’t need him because the independent standard tells us what is good and bad anyway.

But if there is no other source of morality apart from the god then how do we know that god is good? What he tells us could be bad and we would never know. The god could really be a deceptive demon, or an alien visitor with bad intentions, or purely imaginary and have no inherent qualifications for specifying moral standards at all.

There are also practical reasons why gods are not good sources of morality. How do we know what god really thinks? Different religions (even ones with the same god) have different rules.

For example, Muslims reserve Friday for prayer, Jews Saturday, and Christians Sunday. Jewish and Islamic rules include not eating pork but for Christians it’s OK. The Catholic version of god says contraception is evil, bust most of the rest don’t.

What practical way is there to tell which is right and which is wrong? Not only are there many conflicting texts, but each text can be interpreted many ways.

Also, why was revelation only communicated to certain prophets? Why did God choose these privileged individuals? Was it a good idea to reveal the secrets of the universe to some desert nomads in the Middle East? What was God thinking when he did that?

How would we know who has received a genuine revelation and who just has some psychiatric problem? People who claim to be prophets today are generally said to be insane or dishonest but we believe Jesus and Moses were genuine. Why? And Mohammed was confused about his first revelation until his wife convinced him it was true.

Finally, why did God’s interaction with humans stop? Christians say it ended two thousand years ago. Muslims say it didn’t, because God talked to Muhammad 1500 years ago. Mormons say Joseph Smith had revelations just 180 years ago.

Smith was told having multiple wives is OK, but when his wife had a revelation that for women having multiple husbands is also OK that was rejected. Why? It’s completely arbitrary. Mormons think their president can continue to have revelations and more recently they have changed their minds about polygamy and allowing black priests. Does that mean the original revelation was wrong?

Obviously what’s right and wrong cannot come from religion. It really is a fool’s game relying on religious texts. So where does morality come from? There is a common morality which isn’t a top down phenomenon, it is a practical solution which has evolved to allow humans to live together in peace. The Golden Rule is just common sense (and pre-dates the Bible by the way).

Poor old God. It seems like the more you think about it the more useless he gets!

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