John Houston on “What Norms and Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

John Houston is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Epistemic Norms and the Adoption of Morally Horrific Religious Beliefs

There are a number of variables we might take into consideration when it comes to the adoption of beliefs about God: philosophical arguments, sacred texts, the faith community, personal experience, our moral sensibilities, and so forth. In what follows I examine the norms that ought to govern the adoption of morally horrific beliefs about God, focusing specifically on the claim that God commands the killing of the infidel. This claim appears within the history of all three major monotheisms—–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—–though it remains most prevalent in Islam. To what should one look to determine whether to believe or disbelieve in divinely sanctioned or commanded murder? Prophets? Sacred texts? Personal revelations & visions? What about one’s existing moral intuitions? Further, suppose there is a conflict between the purportedly authoritative sources to which one might appeal, which should be given normative and epistemic preference?

Deep cognitive dissonance is common among believers who find the propositional content of their traditions at odds with their moral convictions. When it comes to sacred texts, many believers gloss over or look away from the more morally grotesque things that are attributed to God. But evasion won’t do. The question persists, and it demands an answer, especially since many believers (not all of them fundamentalists) feel compelled to defend every jot and tittle of their sacred texts, or every utterance of their prophets, no matter how unpalatable they might seem, even including God’s sanctioning or ordering the execution of the nonbeliever.

One way to determine the adoption of proposed beliefs is to examine their coherence with the body of one’s existing beliefs. As a rule of thumb, the coherence test is wise to apply, but by itself, it is not enough. For, although consistency is a hallmark of rationality, it cannot by itself guarantee epistemic rectitude: one can hold all sorts of beliefs that are consistent with one another yet which are, taken by themselves, wildly implausible.1 We must go further than consistency and weigh the newly proposed beliefs not merely against our existing beliefs, but against those beliefs of ours that are most fundamental or most deeply held in our overall belief system. When a newly proposed belief presents a problem of severe moral-cognitive dissonance, it must be weighed against the beliefs that are most central to the core of one’s moral convictions.

At the core of any healthy set of beliefs lies the conviction that we ought not murder our fellow human beings for reasons of theological disagreement, and the proposition that God commands us to slay the infidel runs directly counter to this most fundamental of beliefs. There is a strain of thought within theism that holds that when faced with such commands we must not too quickly domesticate the transcendent2, or that we must at times to be willing to engage in the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. I reject those arguments, and maintain that instead we ought, in such cases, to adopt the teleological suspension of the allegedly transcendent, because the psychological and spiritual price paid for adopting a belief in divinely sanctioned or commanded killing of our fellow human beings for reasons of their religious epistemic states is too grave. Kant captures this intuition well when faced with the Abraham dilemma and the proposition that God commands him to kill his son. For Kant, it seems that such commands carry with them the inherent transparency of their not being from God, and therefore they must be regarded as illusory. Thus, in The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant says of the man who hears a voice commanding him to violate the moral law, that he must doubt that advice: “for if the voice commands him to do something contrary to the moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole of nature, he must consider it an illusion.”3

Kant’s claim notwithstanding, some theists argue that, as the author of life, God holds an absolute right to take the life of any of his creatures at any time, and can do so without violating any moral law. For God, as the argument goes, transcends the moral law, and is permitted to do whatever he wills in virtue of being the sovereign divine creator. This argument is misguided, as it relies on the flawed assumption that the power to create something entails the right to do whatever one wishes with that thing. The choice to bring forth certain creatures in the world carries with it the adoption of certain obligations to those creatures. This is most evidently true of creatures that are sentient and conscious. Once Pinocchio becomes a real boy Geppetto can no longer toss him in the trash without violating a moral norm.

In short, God can and does owe things to the men and women he creates. Arguments from divine sovereignty, no matter how strongly rooted in power fetishism, lack the power to justify the wanton destruction of sentient and conscious beings. The crass father who declares to his child that because he brought him into this world he has the right to take him out of it, is wrong. Having the creative power to bring something into being does not entail an absolute right to kill that thing.

The belief that God sanctions killing is horrible enough, but the belief that God commands this of us is even more horrible yet. For the consequences of killing are not limited to the victim, but extend to the murderer as well. The victim loses his life. The murderer loses his soul. For the victim, the tragedy is the loss of her life, for the murderer it is what she becomes. This in itself is a sufficient reason for rejecting out of hand the belief in divinely sanctioned or commanded killing, especially such killing for reasons of disparate creeds. No scripture, no vision, no theophany, no apparition should supersede this most fundamental moral intuition. In short, when the starry sky above proposes that you violate the moral law within, you listen not to the sky, but to the moral law.