William Lane Craig doesn't understand the importance of moral epistemology

Here's a blast from the past: a Christian friend of mine on Facebook was posting about the Biblical description of the slaughter of the Canaanites; now, this person is a Randal Rauser type who essentially views the Old Testament as a messy attempt by relatively primitive people to understand God -- in other words, God didn't really command that. His post reminded me of William Lane Craig, and Bill ain't letting the Word of God off that easily. He's devoted several Question of the Week segments to addressing this thorny topic, so I tossed a link to one to my FB buddy -- mainly so he could have a laugh. This is the link I sent him:


In this response, Bill Craig manages to cram together an impressive amount of ad hoc reasoning and logical fallacies, and with his own arguments proves that he doesn't believe in his own moral ontology. Let's talk about that!

Take a stab at atheists first, though!

Bill starts his QotW response with this nugget of wisdom:
I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong.

Before going any further:


That's right! This Reasonable Faith article is from 2011, so you're getting a 2011 meme! Deal with it, heathens.

Anyway, while Craig's unsurprising willful ignorance of secular moral philosophy is a lengthy discussion in its own right, we don't have to pay much mind to this little quote for two reasons:

  1. It's a logical fallacy, called "poisoning the well," a form of ad hominem in which you try to undermine confidence in your opponent's argument by discrediting the person making it. Bill is saying that Christians don't need to be too worried about arguments made by those silly atheists, since they don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to moral ontology. But that leads us to the second point, which is the really important one:
  2. Even if a naturalistic moral ontology is false, it doesn't mean Craig's moral ontology is true by default. Craig still has to argue for his ontology entirely on its own merits, and the merits of a "naturalistic" moral ontology are totally irrelevant to this discussion. Craig just threw that little fallacy out there to distract you... a red herring, if you will.

Craig's moral ontology doesn't make any sense

Kicking off your devastating takedown of atheism with a blatant logical fallacy isn't exactly an auspicious start, but if you're wondering whether it's indicative of the quality of arguments soon to follow, the answer is yes!

Craig argues that the only way to know whether something is right or wrong is if there is a transcendent, cosmic, divine, insert your awe-inspiring adjective Moral Law that is Consistent With God's Nature. God, ICYMI, is Maximally All The Things, including Maximally Powerful (can instantaneously will the universe into existence, for example), Maximally Knowing (knows everything that can be known, where what is constituted by "everything that can be known" is subject to robust debate), and Maximally Loving (not sure what that means). So if the issue is a presumably thorny ethical question like "Is it ethical to purposely murder civilians during wartime, including children," you might very reasonably assume the correct answer is "no" because of the aforementioned Moral Law which lists as part of its Top Ten Commandments that Murder is Bad. But you'd be wrong! Bill would tell you that actually it kind of depends on the context. And I know, I know, you're thinking but that sounds a lot like moral relativism, and the response of course is that's ridiculous — it's exactly like moral relativism. Anyway: 

My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so. I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.

Yes, you heard that right: the real victims in the slaughter of Canaan were the soldiers killing everyone. It's funny to think about how much less charitably Craig would deal with this question from the perspective of militant Islam, because the Taliban murdered dozens of schoolgirls just this week and they fully believe they are doing God's work. I guess the Taliban are the real victims. Oh wait! Sorry, I got off track and forgot that these kinds of convoluted rationales only work if you're arguing for Christianity! Whew! Sorry, forgot to maintain that heavily ethnocentric perspective!

Anyway, Craig thinks this is a Very Good and Serious Argument for his view of the Bible, but if you're thrown a little off-kilter as to how Maximally Loving God could apparently not find any better solutions for the wandering tribes of Israel than to kill a bunch of people and take their land, Bill is ready to reassure you that God Has His Reasons, also known as "morally sufficient reasons can be provided."

Don't hold your breath waiting for Bill to get around to actually, you know, providing these very provide-able reasons (spoiler: he doesn't); this is part of a ruse Bill likes to use all the time: see, it's actually the atheist who has to prove that God could not have morally sufficient reasons! And since God is mysterious and Maximally Knowing, God knows stuff that we don't -- so if God says it's okay to slaughter the kids and rape the virgins then we just have to have faith that God knows what's best.

But do we though? Maybe we can take another option, which is that Bill's whole rationale is ridiculous. And to see why, we need to talk about moral epistemology.

Moral ontology vs moral epistemology

All of Bill's moral arguments are centered on establishing the existence of a moral ontology. His famous Moral Argument, which he's trotted out in countless theatrical "debates" with atheists, goes like this:

1. If objective morality does not exist, God does not exist
2. Objective morality exists
3. Therefore, God exists

Before I post another Picard facepalm at this one, let me just point out a few obvious objections:

1. The existence of a deity is not contingent on the existence of any particular moral ontology (because God could simply be amoral, and morals could be something humans create), and Craig doesn't make any arguments to establish that.
2. Craig usually argues for the second premise by suggesting that the ONLY WAY to say whether something is right or wrong is if an objective Moral Law exists. Otherwise, aren't we just making things up as we go? It's not like secular philosophers have ever talked about morality or anything.
3. Both the premises are false, but even if they were true, the existence of objective morality would not entail the existence of God, and certainly not the theistic God of Christianity. Indeed, there are Christian philosophers who are totally cool with the concept of an atheistic "objective morality"

But wait, wtf is "objective morality" anyway? Ah, here's where we get into the nitty gritty. A transcendent moral law of the type Bill says he believes in (but doesn't) is a kind of moral ontology: the actual state of things. The idea is that regardless of anyone's opinion, certain moral precepts are true

Christians love to pull out low-hanging fruit in these arguments, like "If there's no God, why is torturing a baby wrong?" Like, is it really difficult to think of rational reasons why, as a society, we should strongly disapprove of wanton baby torture besides "God said it's wrong"? Because, fun fact, God doesn't actually say it's wrong to torture babies anywhere in the Bible. In fact, along with slavery, torture (much less baby-specific torture) is one of those things that we as a modern, relatively enlightened culture tend to agree is Very Bad, except prohibitions against it are nowhere to be found in the Bible. Of course, "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy" made it into Maximally Knowing God's Top 10 commandments, which I'm sure Christians always observe very strictly and believe is very important 🙄, but torture and slavery? I guess Christians will just have to logically deduce that one. I suppose that only created a few minor issues though, like, oh I dunno, the church systematically torturing people for a few centuries during the Inquisition, but ya know it's water under the bridge because God is Forgiving and c'mon, you can't expect God's Chosen People to get it right all the time, especially on complex gray-area moral questions like the ethics of slowly beating people to death on the wheel

While Christians trot out the low-hanging fruit to "win" internet debates, I'm much more interested in how Moral Law can help us resolve real, complex, modern moral conundrums, like:

  • What are the ethics of net neutrality?
  • What is the most ethical role of the US military in global conflicts?
  • What are the ethics of a welfare state?
I'm going to fancy a guess that any Christian thinking about those three questions instantly defaulted to their favored political view, and then maybe later might try to track down some vaguely-worded scripture to support it. Which, btw, is something humans are really good at -- deciding what we believe, then searching for ways to justify it. What I'm willing to bet nobody ever does is consult the Bible first to determine the proper, ethical course of action on those complex moral issues. Why not? Isn't the Bible the Word of God? You know, the One Book that Maximally Powerful/Knowing/Loving God gave all of humanity? Sorry, all those tens of thousands of other religions all over the globe, the one from Bronze Age tribal Palestine is the Correct Religion! Surely this One True Book gracefully bestowed upon humanity by the One True God gives absolutely ace moral guidance to modern people. Right?

You don't know what you don't know

Seriously though, why don't people consult the Bible as a roadmap for complex moral problems? Here we run into the elephant in the room that completely undoes Craig's entire moral ontology: whatever the issues are with Craig's moral ontology (and there are many), he never bothers to establish a coherent moral epistemology. This is a really big deal and it pretty much allows us to toss all of Craig's arguments into the trash bin. 

One of my favorite self-quotes is "The only thing worse than a God who doesn't exist is one who might as well not exist." I generally use that in reference to a deistic or pantheistic God -- unless this deity is affecting my life and moral decisions in an unambiguous and meaningful way, such a God is functionally no different from a God that does not exist. The debate over the existence of a deistic God, or some "necessary being" or "uncaused cause", is purely academic -- an exercise in trying to construct logically coherent concepts. Nobody is praying to an amoral deistic consciousness. 

But that quote is particularly analogous here, because (and I'm going full bold + italics here to drive this one home):

It doesn't matter whether an Objective Moral Law exists unless it can be clearly understood and agreed upon by ordinary people.

Honestly, I feel like this is one of those things that should be so stupidly obvious that it shouldn't even need to be mentioned. What good is an Objective Moral Law for all of humanity unless it can be objectively understood by anyone? 

We can say for the sake of discussion that Craig's God is totes real and Moral Law absolutely does exist. How do we know what this moral law actually is? How do we understand it in a way that allows us to apply it to our lives? And most importantly, shouldn't the One Correct Moral Law be.... kind of obviously better than the alternatives? Like, shouldn't it be clear to any rational person what God wants us to do and why it is the most moral thing for us to do? 

Well, Bill apparently doesn't think so. In defending the slaughter of the Canaanites, Craig is arguing that God, at any arbitrary point in time, can issue a command that contradicts our moral intuitions. And that in itself is fine, because we should all be able to agree that our "moral intuitions" are fuzzy at best and tend to change over time. Like, safe bet that if Bill was a wealthy white Southern Christian in the 1840s, he'd probably be able to come up with all kinds of scriptural rationales for slavery.

But killing kids? Taking the virgin women as spoils of war? I mean, this is literally what the Taliban is doing TODAY. And we generally, as a society, regard it as Very Bad. But the God of Christianity could presumably issue a command to his holy armies to kill a bunch of kids and take the virgins for raping, and that would be okay! It's okay because God Has Morally Sufficient Reasons even though no one (least of all Bill Craig) has any clue what they are, and us stupid atheists are the ones who have to prove that God doesn't. Checkmate, atheists!

The problem is that if God's commandments can contradict our moral intuitions in a rather fundamental way (we generally regard war crimes against civilians as.... well, war crimes) because reasons, then the only possible conclusions is that we cannot trust our moral intuitions. And if we can't trust our moral intuitions, then we need some sort of authority to tell us what's Right and Wrong. But again, how does that authority communicate said moral guidance to us fallible meat-bag mortals? The Bible? I mean sure, no one ever disagrees over the moral implications of God's Word, right? Everyone agrees the Bible is super clear about everything, especially moral stuff. I mean, as long as you "remember" the Sabbath Day you're off the hook, right? 

Maximally what now?

Craig's moral epistemology is non-existent, but his moral ontology is pretty convoluted, too. One might reasonably find "murder the children and rape the virgins" as being somewhat in conflict with the concept of a Maximally Powerful/Knowing/Loving God, and this is one of the weird peculiarities of Christian ad hoc reasoning: it's just not very creative. It's actually really easy to think of non-violent ways that situation could have been resolved. Maybe God could have created a really Nice Place for the Canaanites, cursed their crops, then sent messengers to tell them about the Nice Place. If murdering babies was the only option, maybe God could have just snapped his holy immaterial fingers and killed everyone in their sleep. But if you believe God really did command his armies to kill kids and take the women as their spoils of war, then you literally have to believe that God could not have found any other solution. For a Maximal All The Things Deity, God isn't very creative. Well, at least no more creative than his followers.

So no, a maximally powerful God cannot have "morally sufficient reasons" for doing something universally regarded as horrible and in apparent violation of its own Moral Law, because that would suggest that God lacks the power, knowledge, and love to come up with a solution that doesn't involve kids getting slaughtered and virgins being kidnapped and raped. 

Craig does pull out one last gem of ad hoc reasoning though:
Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.

See? If those stupid Canaanites had just peacefully given up their land, homes, and culture in the first place, the guys with swords wouldn't have been forced to kill all those people. The Taliban has said that Sharia Law prohibits girls from being educated, so they were totally forced to blow up that school to uphold God's law. The Taliban soldiers are the real victims, right Bill?  

I always kind of chuckle when theologians first go out of the way to explain how awe-inspiringly powerful God is, then immediately start conjuring up explanations for all the things God can't do. Example: I remember arguing to a Christian once that if God is maximally knowing, then free will cannot exist because God knows the outcomes of our lives and we cannot choose differently; it would also mean God has no free will, since he could not choose differently either. The response I got was that God knows all possible futures we could inhabit, but not which one will specifically become real. This despite God being "transcendent" of spacetime, but sure, okay. Less clear of course in that argument is why God wouldn't be maximally-knowing enough to know that one rather pertinent detail; there wasn't any rationale for God's sub-maximal knowing of things, except to preserve the concept of free will in the face of a rather glaring theological contradiction. 

Craig is employing similar tactics here. He's so desperate to preserve his moral ontology that he just starts inventing rationales for God commanding his Chosen People to do something most mentally healthy humans find repugnantly immoral. His lack of self-awareness when similar atrocities are in fact very real and happening today, but from a radical sect of Christianity's biggest competition, is as frustrating as it is unsurprising. Bill didn't prove his case, but he certainly proved he could double down on a terrible argument when the possibility of being wrong threatens to send him into existential despair. 

Chill with the red herrings about atheism

Whenever I've brought up this topic in the past, the knee-jerk response from theists is to attack atheism. You know, exactly like Bill Craig did in this very QotW. But to use a modern term, it's a whataboutism. The discussion of an atheistic moral ontology is related to the broader discussion of moral ontology and epistemology, but this is a discussion about Bill Craig's moral ontology and he needs to demonstrate a coherent ontology and epistemology entirely on their own merits. Even if a given atheistic moral ontology is false, Craig's ontology doesn't therefore become correct by default.

So before any Craig-loving Christians come rushing to their keyboards to tell me that atheism leaves me with no legs to stand on, well, sorry, that's not what's being discussed here. I've talked about secular moral ontology quite a bit on this blog, but hey, maybe this post deserves a part 2 where I argue in detail about how secular morality can quite clearly give us legs to stand on in determining that it is, in fact, a bad thing to murder babies and kidnap/rape virgin women during war. But it's not this post, so if you post a comment with that whataboutism I'm gonna delete it and ban you.

Until then, keep disbelieving. 


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