This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 36, number 01 (2013). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
In an article published in USA Today titled, “As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good without God,”1 Jerry Coyne, a biologist and outspoken atheist, is disturbed that many Americans, including some prominent scientists, believe that our instinctive sense of right and wrong is “strong evidence for [God’s] existence.” Though Coyne appears to have no formal training in moral philosophy and theology, he ventures into moral philosophy to explain why this is clearly mistaken. His article is useful in that it highlights some common mistakes contemporary atheist writers make in their attempts to ground a secular ethic.
DIVINE COMMAND THEORIES OF ETHICS
It is necessary to understand accurately the position Coyne is criticizing before we consider the merits of his critique. The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Robert Adams. In it, Adams noted that we instinctively grasp that certain actions, like torturing children for fun, are wrong; hence, he reasoned, we are intuitively aware of the existence of moral obligations. According to Adams, the best account of the nature of such obligations is that they are commands issued by a loving and just God. Identifying obligations with God’s commands can explain all the features of moral obligation better than any secular alternative. Consequently, the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for God’s existence.2
It is important to note what Adams did not claim. Central to Adams’s argument is the distinction between the idea that moral obligations are, in fact, divine commands and the claim that one cannot recognize what our moral obligations are unless one believes in divine commands or some form of divine revelation. Adams illustrates this distinction with the now standard example of H20 and water.
Contemporary chemistry tells us that the best account of the nature of water is that water is, in fact, H20 molecules. This means that water cannot exist unless H20 does. However, it does not mean that people who do not know about or believe in the existence of H20 cannot recognize water when they see it. For centuries people recognized, swam in, sailed on, and drank water before they knew anything about modern chemistry.
This distinction has important implications. The claim that moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God does not entail that people must believe that God exists in order to be able to recognize right and wrong. These are separate and logically distinct claims. Affirming one does not commit one logically to affirming the other.
Second, Adams offers an account of the nature of moral obligations, not an account of what it is generally good to do. Actions such as giving a kidney to save a needy stranger can be good without being obligatory. For an action to be obligatory, it must be more than praiseworthy or commendable. Obligatory actions are things we are required to do, or things another person can legitimately demand us to do. Not doing so without an adequate excuse renders us blameworthy, and others can justifiably censure us, rebuke us, and even punish us. Failure to comply makes us guilty and in need of forgiveness.
Failure to grasp these distinctions leads many critics of divine command theories astray, and although I will not argue it here, many lines of argument Coyne makes are unsound due to a failure to make these distinctions. Here, however, I will focus on one argument Coyne gives that does not depend on this confusion: the Euthyphro dilemma.
To read the rest of this article, please visit: http://www.equip.org/articles/euthyphro-dilemma/