Religious Argument Rebuttal: Divine Command Theory

Photo: Michaelangelo/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Michaelangelo/Wikimedia Commons


In this post, I'm going to outline some of the many problems with Divine Command Theory. First, let me begin by explaining what Divine Command Theory is.

As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes,


"Roughly, Divine Command Theory is the view that morality is somehow dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires."


And as William Lane Craig writes on ("reasonable faith," what an oxymoron that is! It's like calling somebody a brilliant retard.)


"On a Divine Command theory of ethics . . . God’s commands to us are non-negotiable in the sense that we have a moral obligation to obey God’s commands. To disobey His commands is to fail to discharge our moral duties."


One of the main problems with Divine Command Theory is that it turns people into unthinking slaves. Do as you're told and do not question. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out, this is a very totalitarian aspect of religion: Follow the Dear Leader unthinkingly. Whatever he orders is right and we must obey. This is not morality; this is slavishness. This is the abolition of critical thinking.

I encourage everybody to think for themselves on every issue and arrive at whatever conclusion they think is the most reasonable. Divine Command Theory says "Do not think for yourself. The thinking has already been done for you. The answers are here in this book. Do not deviate from them, in any way. It is your duty to blindly follow whatever you're told." This rejection of the independence of thought is summarized nicely by the following Martin Luther quote:


"Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason."


Under Divine Command Theory, anything and everything is permitted so long as it's commanded by god. So if god commands us to kidnap children from the playground and brutally torture them to death, then this automatically becomes a morally right action that we have a duty to perform. What could be more perverse and unethical than this? 

Of course, Christians at this point typically retort by saying things like "God would never command us to do anything of the sort. It's not in his nature." Well, anybody who's familiar with the Bible knows that God, especially in the Old Testament, provided people with mountains of obscene commands, including the complete obliteration of entire cities and the slaughter of their every inhabitant. So the claim that God would never command terrible things is demonstrably false. But of course, according to Divine Command Theory, every atrocity and act of barbarism commanded by God in the Bible was a morally right action. Presumably, the Divine Command Theorist wouldn't grant that anything commanded by God in the Bible was horrific. I think this alone actually proves my point.

You could also argue, using their own logic, that the religious believer is in no position to classify the brutal torture of children as morally right or wrong. Is this not the job of God, according to Divine Command Theory? Is it not his decision to make? Who are you to question his moral commands?

Assuming this command did, in fact, come down from on high, this act of torture would automatically become morally correct, according to Divine Command Theory. As William Lane Craig said, "To disobey His commands is to fail to discharge our moral duties." So Divine Command Theory permits any and every action that an outsider would describe as wicked, so long as it's what God commands. This is not morality; this is The Theological Nuremberg Defense. 

The Euthyphro dilemma, originally posed by Socrates, is worth considering at this point:


"Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"


This appears to put the religious believer in a position that they cannot escape from. If what is moral is commanded by the gods because it is moral, then gods are not required for us to arrive at the same conclusions as them. Moral conversations and critical thought on these questions—unaided by a divine, guiding hand—could, at least in principle, provide us with these same answers on what is moral. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes,


"If God commands a particular action because it is morally right, then ethics no longer depends on God in the way that Divine Command Theorists maintain. God is no longer the author of ethics, but rather a mere recognizer of right and wrong. As such, God no longer serves as the foundation of ethics."


But if we chose the alternative answer—that things are moral simply because they're commanded by the gods—then, as I pointed out earlier, this opens the door to the most vile atrocities being permissible so long as they're ordered by the gods.

A simple, yet important question is worth asking: Where do these divine commands originate from? Scripture is one obvious source, but what about personal experiences? If somebody claims that God spoke to them while they were alone in their bedroom last night, are we to believe that they experienced a genuine revelation from God, and if a command was given to them that extends to us as well, are to we follow this command? How are we to distinguish between delusions and genuine encounters with god? Who is to say whose divine experiences were genuine and whose were not? Why is the person who claimed god told them to go out and kill people not praised for exercising their moral duty as a Divine Command Theorist? It's clear from the Bible that ordering people to kill is something that God has done before, so it's not like such a divine command would be inconceivable. 

Another important question is: How could a religious believer distinguish between a moral command from God and a moral command provided by Satan or some other evil trickster? Assuming that Satan would possess the ability to deceive, it seems that such a distinction could not be made with any confidence. One might imagine that commands such as slaughter, rape, and torture would be seen as orders from Satan, while commands like the commitment to perform charitable deeds would be seen as more in line with God's character.

But, especially considering the content of the Bible, this classification appears to be based entirely upon the views of the individual making the classification; what they view as ethical is assumed to be what their God would also view as ethical. So this process illustrates that, at least in some cases, something like the reverse of Divine Command Theory is what actually takes place, with the religious believer deciding what the morally right action is, and then assuming that their God shares their view on this moral question. Rather than God making man in his own image, man appears to be making God in his own image.

There's another important thing to take into consideration. Given that there's insufficient evidence to justify accepting the claims of any one holy book, and given that religions are likely to be nothing more than ancient mythologies that have been passed down over the ages, subscribers to Divine Command Theory aren't actually following the commands of gods; they're just blindly adhering to whatever moral positions happened to have been enunciated by the authors of whichever holy book they subscribe to.

Given how much moral progress Western society has made in only the past 150 years—including the virtual elimination of institutionalized slavery, racism, and sexism—the idea that the most reasonable moral positions were solidified 2,000 years ago is absurd. What are the odds that a group of people living 2,000 years ago had the best answers to every moral question? As Sam Harris noted in The End of Faith, every single person who was alive back then was embarrassingly ignorant on practically every topic when compared to the average person alive today. I would no more seek their counsel on the great moral questions of our time than I would ask their opinion about contemporary debates in theoretical physics.

Another problem with Divine Command Theory is that it's much easier said than done. Religious people disagree with each other—both within and between religions, and both verbally and sometimes violently—on the answers to moral questions. Whether the topic is abortion, stem-cell research, or gay marriage, you will have religious people disagreeing with each other about the correct answer—even if they're both consulting the same holy book to support their position.

How can we derive infallible moral precepts from a contradictory holy book? How can we be expected to follow the commands of God if the word of this God contradicts itself and allows people to take both sides of the same debate? This is not a recipe for moral clarity; it's a recipe for moral chaos. Imagine an Army General giving his soldiers instructions that allow for the interpretation that he simultaneously wants us to and doesn't want us to fire a missile at the enemy squadron, and you have an idea of the sort of ethical confusion that Divine Command Theory provides us with. Divine Command Theory is not a sound basis for morality; it is a moral black hole of incertitude and self-negation. It claims infallibility while producing absurdity.

Divine Command Theory also turns on its head the actual process by which we make moral progress. Society as a whole didn't just wake up one day, thumb though scripture, and then decide upon the correct answers to every question. Instead, progress is made over time. Steps are taken to eliminate injustice and needless suffering. We didn't just take one whack at it and create a masterpiece, like that scene from Spongebob where Spongebob hit the block of marble a single time with his chisel only to reveal a beautiful statue. Instead, we gradually chip away at the mistakes of our ancestors, with the goal of eventually creating something worth marveling at.

There are things that were done in the past and seen as acceptable that we now we reject as immoral, and in the future, people will undoubtedly look back at us and view things that we took for granted as immoral. History shows that declaring that the moral positions you currently hold are absolute and undoubtedly correct is incredibly unrealistic and almost certainly false. The duty that each of us has isn't to blindly follow that which is inscribed in ancient holy books; our duty is to contribute to these moral conversations and do our part to move society forward and help make ethical progress. Shackling yourself to primitive supernatural myths and declaring that all the answers exist within them does nothing to faciliate this progress; it is a roadblock to genuine ethical progress.