The ancient Mediterranean was a marketplace of ideals. If one is observant and critical enough, they can find how different concepts overlap and give rise to one another throughout time. But, some ideas are overlooked or suppressed because they attack the very foundation of religious belief. As secularists are becoming more outspoken, one ancient idea is becoming more prominent. It comes from the original philosopher himself, Socrates.
In one of the Socratic dialogues, Plato explores a dilemma with two prongs, known as the Euthyphro dilemma. A dilemma is an argument that leaves a person with two choices, and whatever choice is made by the person being argued to results in them questioning fundamental ideas about the subject of the argument.
The Euthyphro dilemma explores the basis for morality in terms of God(s). The question posed by the dilemma is this: Does a deity make moral commandments because they are inherently moral, or does a commandment from a deity make it moral?
Either answer you choose leads to implications about the nature of a deity. There are arguments for and against choosing either side of the dilemma. There is no way out of this dilemma unscathed. Well, maybe not.
Some philosophers have taken on the Euthyphro dilemma head-on claiming that it is a false dilemma. As you probably already guessed, these philosophers state that the dilemma is false because there is a third option not explored by the dilemma. What is that third option? Well, that the very nature of god is the standard for morality. God neither invents nor conforms to any moral standard. But what exactly does this mean?
It’s difficult to say with any precision. There are differing ways of accounting for how God’s nature gives meaning to the rightness or wrongness of any action. One popular way to account for this is to say that God’s nature supervenes upon the morality of any given action.
Huh? Supervenes?! What does that mean? It’s a fancy way to say that God’s nature can’t change without also changing the nature of morality. Notice that it is not saying that God can cause changes to the morality of any given action. However, if God were to cease to exist, then so too, would morality.
The idea of divine supervenience is also a point about what we actually know about God… which is bupkis. We can’t say we know that God exists. It’s not that people don’t hold a belief in any number of deities. We don’t have enough warrant to objectively assign a truth-value to the sentence “God exists.” And existence is necessary to attribute agency, or the ability to cause change in the world. So, supervenience is a way to say that God affects morality without giving him a causal role, which has even more strict standards of proof.
The downside to divine supervenience … it makes God somewhat impotent, and less personal. If morality is entangled with God’s nature, and not with his agency, then what reason does God have to give any moral direction or proclaim anything in the first place? We need not agree that God is even rational, when we use supervenience as an explanation for the origin of morality. We only need to agree to one thing, that God cannot change without also changing the nature of morality. Supervenience need not entail active agency on the part of God. Whatever morality is, it is about the behavior of agents and not necessarily their nature.
Of course, one doesn’t need to say that divine supervenience is how God’s nature fixes morality. One could say that the nature of God is the standard for morality, and that God doesn’t command so much as he approves of actions. This seems to fit well with the modern Christian notions of religious liberty and free will. However, there is still a problem with characterizing morality in this way. The ethicist Peter Singer put the problem succinctly.
Singer’s argument against the “God is the standard” argument is put roughly this way: No matter how you phrase it, saying that the very nature of God is the standard for goodness is basically saying that God is good. If you say God’s very nature is the one thing that defines morality, what you’re saying isn’t that God commandments make something moral, but that God’s approval makes something moral. But what does that mean? That God approves of God? Whatever this is, it’s not an independent standard for morality that allows God to be the source of morality.
With the God-as-the-standard argument, you end up with essentially the same problem as you do if you say that actions are moral because God commands them. You end up with there being a problem of morality being contingent. You also have to question whether or not God is a rational being in the first place. It also commits one to the idea that without God, morality simply cannot exist. Or as Dostoevsky puts it “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” But more on this later.
If you choose to go with the God commands something because it is right, then you get different but equally unsettling implications. If God commands you do something because it’s right, then God is not all-powerful. This is because even God must be subject to the rules and nature of morality, so he isn’t the king of kings, either.
It also brings into question the Christian notions of religious liberty and free will. Because the moral standards are independent of God, even God is subject to them. The Supreme Being’s will is not free from the yoke of morality, and neither is yours. Also, if morality is independent of the existence of God, then God need not exist for morality to be attained. This is not an option for the theist, where for the atheist it is a viable option.
The Euthyprho dilemma pre-dates the advent of Christianity by approximately 700 years. It seems as though the authors of the New Testament would have been familiar with Plato’s Dialogues. While there is a healthy and robust debate regarding this in historical circles there is ample evidence that early Christian and Muslim church fathers did borrow ideas from Plato; including St. Augustine of Hippo and al-Farabi. (al-Farabi) (Mendelson)
So, how is it that this ancient argument is still affecting us to this day? Because the same general choice remains for the theist. Either you choose to say the God makes morality or morality makes God. Since a theist by definition believes in the existence of God, the second option is least appealing to them. Therefore, it seems that theists are largely choosing to conceptualize morality as being commanded by God. What is the evidence for this?
This is no more evident than in the colloquially characterized culture wars in the United States, although other countries have clashes between two different ends of their culture along roughly the same lines. The starkest area where we can see this is in terms over the ongoing contention regarding marriage equality.
In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Council, 60 percent of people who attended services one time a week or more opposed marriage equality, whereas only 27 percent of the people polled who attended less than one time per week opposed it. Both numbers are irrespective of religious membership (Pew Research Center). Religiosity plays a key role in shaping people’s attitude towards marriage-equality.
Not only does religiosity, but which religion also plays a role in how you view the issues of marriage-equality. The study determined that White evangelical Protestants were opposed to marriage equality in greater numbers than their mainline cohorts. Whereas Catholics were nearly identical in their opposition regardless of race. (Pew Research Center) The only other factor that was as strong a predictor of opposition to marriage-equality was identifying as a conservative Republican (Pew Research Center).
But what are the reasons that are given for these people’s opposition to marriage-equality? Well, it comes back to various interpretations of holy texts from around the world. In Judaism, the story of Onan is where the Old Testament condemns non-procreative sex. Onan sleeps with his dead brother’s wife, Tamar. Rather than ejaculate in her, he “spilt his seed on the ground”. God kills him, because according to Genesis “it was evil in the sight of HaShem (God)”. (The Book of Bereishit (Genesis))
While the majority of American Catholics support marriage-equality (Pew Research Center), the official stance of the Catholic Church, according to their catechism is that homosexuality is wrong because it is counter to the idea that sex “proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” The divine nature of sex, according to the catechism is to procreate, anything outside the potential for this is a sin and is morally wrong.
And one Muslim hadith describes homosexual behavior in even firmer terms: “For homosexuality involves innumerable evil and harms, and the one to whom it is done would be better off being killed than having this done to him, because after that he will become so evil and so corrupt that there can be no hope of his being reformed, and all good is lost for him, and he will no longer feel any shame before Allah or before His creation … ” (WikiIslam)
And the protestant view, well according to Protestant Bible scholar Ben Witherington: “Paul used homosexual and lesbian sin as illustrations of the more general problem of the effects of the fall. For Paul, not unlike other early Jewish writers, homosexual behavior is perhaps the clearest example of how flouting sexual distinctions is ultimately a rejection of the Creator, who made such distinctions. In other words, it is not just immorality, it is idolatry.” (Witherington)
In all these religious texts, we see a common theme arise. One is that homosexual preference, but particularly behavior is against the commandment of God, or at the very least the nature of God. Second, we see that there is a relationship between the natural world and God. In the Jewish and Christian terms, homosexuality is a misappropriation of the teleological end of sex.
That is, the purpose of sex is to procreate and if you are flouting that purpose, you are flouting nature and therefore, God.. In the Muslim hadith, it is no longer about flouting nature, it is about flagrant evil. No longer is sexuality about teleology, but it is entirely in the realm of the spiritual, and to go against the word of Allah or Muhammed is to put your very soul at stake.
All three of these religious traditions rely on the proclamation of God to determine the morality of homosexual sex. In terms of conservative Abrahamic religions, to this day all three in that tradition denounce homosexuality for very similar reasons. Still, this understanding of morality doesn’t approach what Socrates addresses in the Euthyphro dilemma.
What does it mean to say that God’s commandment makes something right? Well, as Leibniz put it, to say that an action is right or wrong on the basis of what God commands means that God is no longer a rational person, and furthermore that the only thing that is enforcing the morality of God isn’t reason, but power. In other words, it wrong because God is mighty … might makes right.
Might makes right. Only one stark example of the line of rhetoric often espoused by conservative Christians is the example of Facebook pastor Joshua Feuerstein brandished an assault weapon on a video of his, claiming that his First Amendment freedom of religion is “guaranteed by my Second Amendment right.” (Feuerstein) Does this attitude of violence guaranteeing morality (or at the very least safeguarding one’s view of morality) transcend American culture? If so, to what degree?
An article in the Journal of Religion and Society points out that across cultures, higher levels of religiosity correlate with higher levels of quantifiable social dysfunction and that lower levels of religiosity (or higher levels of secularity) correlate with lower levels of quantifiable social dysfunction. (Paul) One of the quantifiable markers, murder rates. Higher levels of religiosity correlate to higher murder rates, even in the United States and across different religions, too. So in essence, there seems to be at the very least a statistical correlation between the level of violence and the level of religiosity.
It’s a hard sell to state that violence in the depiction and enforcement of a religion’s morality translates into violence in the quotidian world. It’s an even harder sell to show a relationship of any kind between the implicit violence of command theory and the behavior of people who identify as conservative Christians. However, at a very real and deep level in terms of Biblical morality, at least in the Abrahamic tradition, violating a commandment of God resulted in the stern punishment of that individual.
I am not making the claim that there is a causal link between religiosity and violence. However, I do think that there is a case to be made in terms of a mereological connection between the depiction of violence in scripture and the correlations between religiosity and violence. That is to say that the concept of violence is a part of the morality of conservative Christians and their morality is threatened, it becomes a part of their response.
And this is why conservative Christians appeal to force instead of persuasion to talk about morality. This is why we can “pry their guns from their cold, dead hands”. This is why conservative Christians overwhelmingly support the death penalty (Mizell). This is why Josh Feuerstein believes that his second amendment rights guarantee his First Amendment rights, and why we spend so much money on our military. In the conservative Christian world, it is not only that might creates what is right, it also guarantees that it remains that way.
Holy texts illustrate that not only does the act of God commanding something make it right, but God’s ability and willingness to punish violations of his commandments also ensures the rightness of his actions. The violence doesn’t end with the holy texts, theological exegesis supports the concept that God’s commandments define nature. Furthermore, rhetoric from conservative Christians and quantifiable political views support the notion that conservative Christians believe the remedy for a violation of God’s commandment is the use of violence. This could account for the correlation between levels of religiosity and quantifiable social dysfunction across nations.
The conclusion I draw here is this. The notion of violence which guarantees the moral superiority of conservative religious morals has become a meme which has attached itself to the very identity of conservative Christians in the United States. It is likely that such violence is a part of all the Abrahamic traditions, and even the non-Abrahamic traditions, but that falls outside the scope of this work. Is there a solution to this core of violence in the conservative Christian identity? The point of this writing wasn’t to treat, rather to diagnose the problem. Treatment will come in another work.
al-Farabi. “al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City).” Al-Farabi on the Perfect State. Trans. R. Walzer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. 256-268. Book.
Mendelson, Michael. St. Augustine. 12 November 2010. Internet. 9 August 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/augustine/#OntEud.
Mizell, Jill. An Overview of Public Opinion and Discourse on Criminal Justice Issues. Overview. Washington, D.C.: The Opportunity Agenda, 2014. Document. 9 August 2015. http://opportunityagenda.org/files/field_file/2014.08.23-CriminalJusticeReport-FINAL_0.pdf.
Paul, Gregory S. “Cross-National Corelations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religionand Science 7 (2005): 1-17. Academic Journal. 9 August 2015. http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.pdf.
Pew Research Center. “Support for Same-Sex Marriage at Record High, but Key Segments Remain Opposed.” Vers. Detailed Tables. 8 June 2015. Pew Research Center . Internet. 9 August 2015. http://www.people-press.org/2015/06/08/same-sex-marriage-detailed-tables/.
RANT: Gay Man files LAWSUIT to forcibly remove homosexuality from BIBLE .. Pastor THREATENED with ARREST if he doesnt marry SAME SEX COUPLES! Dir. Joshua Feuerstein. Perf. Joshua Feuerstein. 2015. Internet Video. 9 August 2015. https://www.facebook.com/joshua.feuerstein.5/videos/633889066713779/.
The Book of Bereishit (Genesis). Ed. Benyamin Pilant. 1998. Internet. 2015 August 9. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Bible/Genesis38.html.
WikiIslam. Qu’ran, Haddith and Scholars: Homosexuality. 2015 June 20. Internet. 2015 August 9. <http://wikiislam.net/wiki/Qur%27an,_Hadith_and_Scholars:Homosexuality>.
Witherington, Ben. Was Sodom into Sodomy? 1 July 2003. Internet. 9 August 2015. http://www.beliefnet.com/News/2003/07/Was-Sodom-Into-Sodomy.aspx.