Monday, March 13, 2006

If God Exists, Everything is Permitted

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted...

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism. --Slavoj Zizek, Defenders of the Faith, via ambivablog


Of all the arguments against atheism, the argument from morality must be the worst. I've tried to refute it several times on this blog, but Dr. Zizek nails it.

If God exists, than whatever God says, we must do. More precisely, whatever we believe God says, we must do. When Abraham heard a voice telling him to murder his son, he prepared to do so. When the Hebrews were commanded to conquer the nations of Canaan, they did so. When Islamic terrorists hear the voice of God telling them to blow up a pizza shop or fly into some skyscrapers, they obey. When Deanna Laney saw signs from God that she should kill her children, she did so.

After all, what does morality mean in a theistic worldview? If God commands it, it must be moral. That's objective morality.

The theists will surely argue that God didn't exactly tell Abraham to kill his child, that conquering the Canaanites was indeed moral, that the terrorists are fooling themselves, and that Mrs. Laney was surely insane. Well, where does that leave you? How do you know if your interpretation of God's will is correct, if you aren't fooling yourself, if you're sane?

Don't you have to see if your perception of God's will aligns with your own sense of morality before you can act on it?

Aren't you really in the same boat as us atheists? Except more in danger of being misled by voices, religious interpretations, or religious leaders?

32 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

For me, the only "talking" I hear from God is through his "word" which is the Bible.
It's not like I hear voices. I don't know how it is for other people but God doesn't "talk" to me and I would be very cautious about someone who claims they hear God's voice--especially if God was telling that person to do immoral, questionable things.
When I hear Christians say," I felt like God was telling me to call you--so I did." I perceive that to be more of an instinct that won't go away.
I've had that happen to me before.
I felt like I should pray for someone without really knowing why and then later, I would find out that person was going through an ordeal.
That's the way I feel God communicates with most of us--through supernatural instincts/conscience.
I've spoken with a lot of Christians about the way God uses them and that's always how they explain it: A "feeling" or a "gentle nudge in a specific direction".
Not a strong, clear voice that says," Burn down that Pizza Parlor."

Laura said...

Sadie: Doesn't it also depend on how the person perceives the message though? Maybe that nudge is all that is needed to justify violence that is exacerbated by generations of hatred, as is the case with Muslim terrorists. Or a nudge to wipe out an entire indigenous people in North America because early Americans were nudged into believing in the Manifest Destiny? Or that nudge that caused thousands of people to be burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

Sure, people can be nudged into doing good things too, as you stated.

But the concern here are people who are compelled to do evil things. For those who are nudged into doing immoral things - the nudge removes a certain amount the personal blame for the actions.

CyberKitten said...

JA quoted Zizek saying: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted.

The way I read it was that God permits these things to happen. He does nothing to stop them & the people involved may really believe they are doing the Will of God.

God may not actually be commaning people to kill each other in His name, but if He does indeed exist then He's doing nothing to prevent it from happening. Isn't this the same as condoning it? Is there much difference between directed killing and withdrawl of protection?

David said...

>>How do you know if your interpretation of God's will is correct, if you aren't fooling yourself, if you're sane?

The what-if-you're-fooling-yourself canard cuts both ways. Any position to open to that possibilty.

Sadie Lou said...

Laura--
Be honest: Haven't you had some weird, random thoughts before? I have. I'll have like this vision of myself chucking a potato at the back of someone's head and then I'll be like, "Where did that come from?"
I think in the case of people doing evil things in the name of God, it is much like that but these people have displaced responsibility from themselves to "God".
They take their primal impulses and trick themselves into believing that God is "telling" them to do it. That way, the have justification for their actions.
It's borderline insanity in most cases--brainwashing.

Cyberkitten--
Your idea of God and how he should operate is confusing. Are you suggesting that a "good" God would step in and prevent bad things from happening or are you saying that only good things should happen to good people and bad thing to bad people? What is a good God according to you?

Laura said...

Sadie said: They take their primal impulses and trick themselves into believing that God is "telling" them to do it. That way, the have justification for their actions.

Exactly. That's the point.

But whose version of good & bad is correct, if everyone believes something different about God and the nature of God? It's just as much 'moral relativism" as athiests and/or secular humanists are accused of having.

And yes, I've had weird thoughts, but being a psych major and having taken neuropsychology, I'm pretty confident those are random neural firings. There's also a lot to learn about the brain. I'm not about to assume that God put strange thoughts in my head. I'd like to think that if he exists, he's got better things to do than confuse me.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: Cyberkitten--
Your idea of God and how he should operate is confusing. Are you suggesting that a "good" God would step in and prevent bad things from happening or are you saying that only good things should happen to good people and bad thing to bad people? What is a good God according to you?

What I'm saying is that bad things happen. Some of those bad things are caused by human action. God knows that they are going to happen and yet does nothing to prevent them. God allows bad things to happen, both to bad people and good people. God has the power to prevent bad things from happening but does not. Why?

asher said...

As Dennis Prager says: If there is no God, then "thou shalt not murder" is a matter of opinion. There has to be a reason we have a sense of morality within us...or what we perceive to be morality. There are certain things that most people will agree is horrible: incest with your children or torturing handicapped people comes to mind. But why should these things revolt you? Without God, Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler have the same value. Why jail pedophiles? Did they really do something that was wrong? By whose standards?

According to the Japanese kamikaze pilots dying for their emperor and killing as many Americans as possible was truly the way to salvation. Whose to say they were wrong and our fight against Japanese and German fascists was so good?

Relative morality always comes down to "Well, I feel...." Pretty sad.

CyberKitten said...

asher - are you saying that the only valid morality is Christian morality? Are you implying that morality did not exist before the Bible or the New Testament? Can you be saying that no moral individuals existed before the teachings of Christ?

asher said...

cyber:

Take it any way you want to. What is morality? I imagine the morality of those who worshipped Moloch was to put their kids on fire in honor of their God. Or what about the ancient Egyptians who worshipped the dead and had millions of slaves building temples the size of football fields? In ancient Greek society it was considered correct for an older man and a younger boy to be on loving terms. And the Romans had no problem issuing justice by nailing people to wooden crosses.

Tell me, what is morality?

Laura said...

Asher: Exactly. What is morality?

Why is it so hard for you to consider that morality is not constant. Even the meaning of morality changed throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity in the way scriptures were/are understood. Must morality be something constant? Must it be boiled down to simply 'Good for all eternity' and 'Bad for all eternity'? Isn't it too complex a concept for such a simplistic understanding? Even seemingly simplistic examples of morality - such as Thou shall not commit murder are up for debate in terms of the meaning of murder. What constitues murder? The definition is the unlawful killing of one human being by another. But what does that really mean? What is considered lawful is a question of debate as well.

Jewish Atheist said...

As Dennis Prager says: If there is no God, then "thou shalt not murder" is a matter of opinion.

And I say: if there is a God, then "thou shalt not murder" is a matter of opinion. Just ask bin Laden or Yigal Amir. Both believe in God, both believe murder is praiseworthy.

dbs said...

I'm sure that there are more technicaly accurate ways to say this, but morality is based on the FACT that we all share this planet together. As a result, it is possible to develop pretty clear guidlines about what works and what does not work. Sure, some nuances may change as time marches on, but the principles are absolute, not relative. These are rules without which, the normal course of the world could not be sustained.

You can't kill, not just because it feels wrong. You can't kill because the world could not exist if killing were permited. And killing remains imoral, even if you believe that God told you to do it.

r10b said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
r10b said...

First, must God's will be acccomplished by moral methods only? Jesus' death was God's will but His crucifixion was not a moral act and God did not reward those responsible (quite the contrary) even though it accomplished His eternal purposes.

Second, Dr. Zizek's argument is not cogent. Does the deaths of thousands at the hands of terrorists mean that everything is permitted? The initial mortality estimates on 9/11 in NYC were in the tens of thousands; many thousands did not die as expected. The plane that crashed into the field in PA could have killed many hundreds more had it reached it's destination. Zizek seems to say that the world is as bad as it could possibly be. That we sit in peace, warm and fed at our computers debating such topics attests to the fact that things are not in a state of unmitigated evil.

I pray for and send financial support to some of those who need help. Some who are in the most dire circumstances are being aided by those who seek to serve God by giving life not taking it. Why must you prop up your position by highlighting the rare cases of evil done in God's name while ignoring the good being done by millions all around the world every day?

How do you know if your interpretation of God's will is correct...

Leaving aside the actions of the ancient Jewish nation for now and speaking to the present, it's spectacularly clear that God does not command His people to break His Laws nor do they escape judgement when they do. Certainly Christians have no need pass God's commands through their own moral filter to decide what's truly the most righteous action. As a matter of fact it is those who commit immoral deeds in God's name that do exactly that, and it's their own degenerate moral sense that leads them astray.

P.S.: I deleted my previous post because I'm a terrrible proofreader.

r10b said...

Damn!

Jewish Atheist said...

r10b:

I think you're misinterpreting "everything is permitted." What he's saying is that if you believe in God, everything is moral as long as you believe God commanded it. It's a response to the criticism of atheists that if you don't believe in God, everything is moral.

Leaving aside the actions of the ancient Jewish nation for now and speaking to the present, it's spectacularly clear that God does not command His people to break His Laws nor do they escape judgement when they do.

This is spectacularly clear? Not to a sizeable chunk of Muslims, it's not. Nor to many Christian fundamentalists who lie and wage war in the name of God. Nor to Jews like Yigal Amir, who murdered the prime minister of Israel.

CyberKitten said...

It's always interesting to argue about absolute morality. For instance - the classic 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' command. Seems pretty obvious doesn't it. But:

Does that mean no abortion? No state sanctioned executions? No murders? No suicides? No assassinations? No wars? What about the killing of animals? Mercy killings? Self defence?

JDHURF said...

Wow, there is a lot of posts and I don’t have the time to read them all now :( but I really enjoyed the post, very good points.

“Leaving aside the actions of the ancient Jewish nation for now and speaking to the present, it's spectacularly clear that God does not command His people to break His Laws nor do they escape judgement when they do.” – r10b

Seems to be, yet again, another case of defining what god has “allegedly” commanded based upon ones own definition and viewpoint.

Laura said...

r10b: We're not concerned about those who may do good (or innocous) things and believe it's god's will - they don't hurt anyone. The concern is when the same logic (god told me to, or I believe god told me to) is used to justify actions that hurt others.

If Jesus told me to preach his word in the public park, that doesn't hurt anyone. If he told me to preach his word and kill anyone who disagrees... well...

I like dbs comments - that many of the basic moral codes are justified by the fact that we must somehow find a way to live together on this rock.

Orthoprax said...

Laura,

"I like dbs comments - that many of the basic moral codes are justified by the fact that we must somehow find a way to live together on this rock."

That's just assuming that we care that we all live together on this rock. That you care about humanity as a whole is not truly a rational value. If you just care about the Aryan race or the Muslim people then you are doing what is right in your own eyes.

Morality depends on a series of chosen axiom values. And those are subject to change from time to time and from place to place.

Rather than a consequentialist notion of morality where we must act a certain way in order to fulfill a certain goal (eg "to live together on this rock") we should work to find the best and most convincing values for which we can generally agree on.

Make a list of all the things you value in life and then do your best to figure out compromises where some confront each other and where your values may conflict with your neighbor's.

~Warning - the above is a work in progress, there are probably holes in it~

Sadie Lou said...

I posted a quiz on my blog that I think would be fun for all of us to take and then discuss our scores and the questions. Wanna play?
Anyone?
*please post results on my blog so that we can keep the discussion in one place.
See you there!

Laura said...

Orthoprax said: "Morality depends on a series of chosen axiom values. And those are subject to change from time to time and from place to place. "

You'll get no argument from me on that. I didn't intend to make the impression that there was one morality for all people and all times. My previous comments say as much.

Tim Kanwar said...

What Zizek neglected to mention is that atheists, in addition to being more moral, are also more violent. Much, much more violent.

According to Mr. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, we are now witnessing an increasingly "militant attempt to surgically remove religion from the public square and turn us into an atheistic society." And those atheists, not content with having excised God from biology and the evolution of life (the Thomas More Center made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save him by defending the Dover, PA school board in the Kitzmiller intelligent design case), are going after Christians, God's helpless and pious adherents, as well. As Thompson points out, "It’s almost like a genocide. It’s a sophisticated genocide."

http://farragonews.blogspot.com/2006/03/right-not-to-believe-part-ii.html

Jewish Atheist said...

Mr. Kanwar:

Are you insane? In the most powerful country in the world, Christians make up 85-90% of the population, rule the White House, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court, and make up a majority of the armed forces and police forces.

Oh, so helpless, you poor, oppressed Christians.

r10b said...

JA said...

What he's saying is that if you believe in God, everything is moral as long as you believe God commanded it.

Eric Rudolph may have believed that God commanded him to do what he did. Mohamed Atta may have believed that God commanded him to do what he did. How does that make it moral? Well, it does if morality is what a person says it is. God thinks otherwise; therefore Zizek's argument collapses - if it ever stood up.

Are you saying that if these men did not believe in God that they would be leading socially productive lives instead of finding some other justification for their depravity? That's complete bul... well, I can't use two vulgar expressions in one thread. What if I brain my neighbor's cat with a hammer and then say I did it because JewishAtheist is a dog-lover? According to Zizek you should be considered a pariah. I look to you for guidance, JA, it's all your fault!

Utter unsalvagable nonsense!

I can't speak for Islam but I doubt those who study the Koran and seek God through it can find justification for murder. As for Christianity, I suggest a person consider this and this before attempting it.

People commit immoral deeds for money, pleasure, pride, hatred, fear, glory... all self-centered and self-serving motivations. Self is anti-God. Obeying God is loving others. It is, I repeat, spectacularly clear in Scripture. When someone tacks God's name on their immoral, self-serving actions they do so to hide from their shame and it only justifies their inevitable punishment (it's ok, not a Bible verse).

I must go now and take a pill.

Laura said...

R01b: What this points out is the fallacy of relying on some sort of concrete and finite understanding of "moral" dictated to you by any source - be it government or religion. The American government at one time said it was moral to give the Indians a fast trip across the country. Or to deny citizenship to non-white immigrants. Does that make it moral because they said so?

In Biblical times it was OK to stone someone to death, or sell people into slavery - does that make it moral?

As for the Koran - just as has happened with the Bible, it depends on how you interpret the text. How one person understands morality as prescribed in the Bible, Koran, Talmud, Upinishads, or even Federal Law can be totally different than the way another person interprets it. Should we rely on others to explain it to us then? Tell us what they mean? What if we disagree with the supposed expert? Or what if they're wrong?

Kevin Parry said...

This is a good article. On my blog, I recently pondered the question of why the followers of God have to do all the fighting, and speaking, for God. Can't God look after himself? Can't he fight his own battles?

This is a good blog. I will put it on my favourites list.

All the best
Kevin

Memoirs of an ex-Christian

R10B said...

Kevin,

This question opens up a great big can of worms. If you look at, for example, three divine projects, 1) ruling life on earth, 2) communication of God's Word to Man, and 3) building the Kingdom of God, it seems God has chosen to make mankind his co-workers even if that made the whole process "messy."

So even though God could fight his own battles it's possible that he has chosen another way.

Missy said...

Your argument is actually one of the beter arguments I have read on the internet to contradict the moral argument. Unfortunately, you have manged to affirm the argument. How would you know that the things religuous zealots have done in the name of God was wrong unless there was a sense of morality etched in your heart that told you it was wrong? The moral argument does not excuse the sinful acts done in the name of God, instead it explains our knowledge that we intuitively have that tells us it is wrong what the zealots do. We are then left to ask how we received that etching of moral law on our hearts. I as a theist believe God etched it on your heart. You as a creature who was divinely gifted with free will and free thought must make your own conclusion.

Anonymous said...

God is continuousely killed!

Least but not last by those who admire the Money God!

Anonymous said...

I might need to read more than an excerpt, but I don't think Zizek understands Dostoevsky very well.

"Don't you have to see if your perception of God's will aligns with your own sense of morality before you can act on it?"

I have to make sure my actions are moral before I can have a perception of God.

"Aren't you really in the same boat as us atheists? Except more in danger of being misled by voices, religious interpretations, or religious leaders?"

I don't know. Which atheists are you referring to? If they are good people, I hope I am among them.

As far as danger goes, I suppose religious people are predisposed to being misled by religious leaders, just like non-religious people are predisposed to being misled by non-religious leaders.