Carrier, Moreland and Morality, Part IV

[This is the fourth part of a series on Richard Carrier's attempted rebuttal of J.P. Moreland's argument on Morality found in his book Scaling the Secular City. Carrier's original essay can be found here and the first part of this series can be found here, the second part can be found here, and the third part can be found here.]

Carrier’s Final Paragraph

In the paragraph which I have labeled RC4, Carrier makes his final argument in favor of his contention that humanism has as strong as a moral base as Christianity as follows:

Ultimately, the fact remains that secular humanists, by the very definition of 'humanist', love humankind -- whatever their reasons -- and this therefore stands as a reason to be moral equally as strong as the Christian's "love for God." One may even say that the secular humanist is on stronger ground here: for the love of God can lead to acts of immorality toward mankind, as exemplified by Abraham's willingness to murder his own son because of his love for God, whereas love for mankind would only produce moral acts toward mankind -- whether God were good or evil, or real or not. This is one of the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the values of Christian theism and secular humanism: as a secular humanist, I see Abraham's action as thoroughly immoral. A moral response in that situation would be to rebuke God, since the very act of asking Abraham to kill his son merely to prove his own faith would in itself prove that god was evil, a tyrant, and god's standing as the supreme creator would not change the fact that his character was reprehensible.

Keeping the Context

Before proceeding further in to Carrier’s final argument (RC4), it is important to recognize some of the background for the argument. In RC1, Carrier makes the claim that the “Christian can offer no better reason to love God than the humanist can offer to love humankind.” As pointed out previously, Christians do have a very strong reason to love God -- Christians love God because (to use Carrier’s own words) of His “character and quality.” In the Christian view, God, being perfectly and totally just, good and merciful, is deserving of our complete and full love.

In RC3, Carrier follows up on this idea that humanists have as much of a reason to love as Christians by identifying the following reason humanists can hold to love humanity where there is no God or gods: humanists love “based on certain qualities they possess apart from how they feel or act torwards us . . . .” Carrier uses the analogy of a man’s love for his wife “because of who she is” and a person’s love for America because “of what it represents and what it has accomplished.”

The Big Assertion

RC4 begins with the following statement:

Ultimately, the fact remains that secular humanists, by the very definition of 'humanist', love humankind -- whatever their reasons -- and this therefore stands as a reason to be moral equally as strong as the Christian's "love for God."

Taking this statement at its face value Carrier is simply saying “we love humans because we do, and that’s equal to the Christians’ love of humanity arising out of their love for God.” With all due respect, it isn’t equal. As has been previously pointed out, Christians give their reasons for loving God based upon God’s perfect nature. Since God’s perfect “character and quality” gives us a strong basis for finding Him to be deserving of love, and since he asks that we show that love by loving our neighbors, there exists a much strong philosophical foundation for a Christian to love humanity. Compare that to the face value of Carrier’s statement that humanists love humans because that’s what humanists do. Certainly, the difference becomes quite obvious when viewed in that light.

God Is More Deserving of Love

However, Carrier doesn’t make his argument in a vacuum. Looking at RC4 in light of RC3 his argument becomes better -- but not much. Whatever reason you choose to love another person, God is more deserving of that love. If you love someone because of her justice, God is infinitely more just and therefore more deserving of that love. If you love someone because of his mercy, God is infinitely more merciful and therefore more deserving of that love. Thus, even if it were to be granted that these were sufficient reasons to love humanity, it would be incorrect to say, as Carrier does, that the basis for the humanists’ love is “equally as strong” as the basis for the Christian love of God. God’s perfect nature provides a much stronger basis for loving Him than for loving another human being.

From the Particular to the General

But I cannot grant that Carrier has made a case for loving humanity based on his examples. Granting that he has made a good case for loving one’s wife, does it follow that my love for my wife give philosophical warrant for loving all wives? Because I love my country, does it follow that I should also love all other countries, too? While I love my wife and my country, I don’t see where my love for a particular (my wife, my country) gives any type of sound philosophical basis for loving humanity as a whole. Carrier is making the error of moving to a general from a particular without any connection to show that such a move is warranted.

Why Choose Love Over Hate?

Moreover, while I love my wife because of who she is, I have hated other people for who they are. For example, I hate the BTK Killer because of the brutal acts he has perpetrated on other people. In other words, just as I love my country for the great things it has done, I hate the BTK Killer for what he has done. If Carrier is prepared to love humanity generally because he loves some of the people, why shouldn’t he hate humanity because he hates some of the particular people? Obviously, I am glad he has chosen to love humanity instead of hate, and I am certainly not advocating hating humanity because of the actions of people like the BTK Killer, but Carrier needs to provide some type of philosophical foundation for choosing to love over choosing to hate humanity. He has not done so.

Acknowledging the Undeserving Nature of Love

Additionally, what is there about humanity that makes humanity loveable in the eyes of humanists? Certainly, humanity as a whole has done great things, but humanity as a whole has also committed genocides and holocausts, polluted the environment, lied cheated, stolen, murdered, gossiped, and a million other things that make them unloving. So, what is it about humanity that makes them especially deserving of love? Carrier’s essay doesn’t provide an answer beyond “whatever” the reason. Obviously, to make the claim that the humanists basis for loving humanity is equal to the Christians’ basis, Carrier should provide some philosophical basis for loving humanity, but he really gives no basis for this love beyond his assertion that humanists love humanity.

Here is where Christianity differs markedly from humanism. Christianity doesn’t try to make the case that any single human or humanity as a whole is deserving of love. That’s what makes God’s grace so astounding -- despite the fact that we don’t deserve it, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to die for us so that we shouldn’t perish, but have everlasting life. And it isn’t the result of any action on our part that God has given us this gift, but the Grace of God alone. We love others not because they deserve love, but because God, who is infinitely deserving of our love and devotion, desires that we do so. “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:21)

Love of God Leads to Immorality?

Carrier then tries to make the case that Christianity can lead to acts of Immorality toward mankind, while humanism would only produce moral acts toward mankind. In doing so, he cites the account of Abraham and Isaac, and points out that what God called on Abraham to do was, in his view as a humanist, patently immoral. Carrier’s argument fails on several grounds.

First, Carrier’s argument fails because God does not call us to do such things in the ordinary course of our lives. The rule is, has been and remains “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “love your enemies,” too. In other words, absent extraordinary circumstances, Christians are called upon to love their fellow humans fully and totally -- even to the extent of denying themselves.

Second, the example of Abraham ignores the fact that Abraham didn’t hurt Isaac and God knew that Abraham wasn’t going to harm Isaac. Thus, in the infamous words of the movies, no human beings were harmed in the making of this Biblical scene.

Third, it is a mistake to treat every account in the Old testament -- a time which God used to teach His people about His nature, His love, our failures, and His demands on each of us -- as somehow the rule of our lives. Certainly, the account of Abraham and Isaac was more about establishing a few central themes of the relationship between Abraham and his progeny and God -- including the teaching that child sacrifice would not be accepted -- then it was about establishing a rule that all Christians should engage in child sacrifice.

Fourth, there is a “greater good” element to the account of Abraham and Isaac that I would expect most skeptics like Carrier would accept if it didn’t involve God. After all, we all agree that lying is bad, but it is unlikely that anyone would disagree that it was the greater good to lie to a murderer about where his intended victim is hiding than to tell the truth. Likewise, it is likely that Carrier would even agree that killing another person would be appropriate to keep them from engaging in an act of greater harm. The difference between Carrier and the person who understands the account of Abraham and Isaac is that Carrier doesn’t understand how doing the will of God is the “greater good” in every circumstance.

Finally, with the arrival of Christ and the post-resurrection times, a change occurred in the relationship between God and humanity. With that change, the rule has become to love one another, love your fellow man, and even love your enemies. It would seek odd to expect that God, who is demanding that we love each other as the general rule, would be making exceptions to that rule with any regularity. In fact, I am aware of no time since the resurrection where God has ordered anyone to violate that rule.

Certainly, the account of Isaac and Abraham seems a bit strange to the outsider such as Carrier, but the simple fact is that there is nothing in the account that would lead someone to believe that God expects Christians to act immorally or unloving toward other people as a general rule, and certainly little to believe that it would ever happen at all in this post-resurrection Age of Grace.


Carrier has made an interesting assertion about the Moreland’s position on morality. Unfortunately, he has failed to back it up. He failed to show that Christians have no strong philosophical foundation for loving humanity, and failed to show that skeptics have an equally strong basis for loving humanity. In fact, his failure to show any philosophical basis for loving humanity by humanists is striking given his claim that the humanist basis is at least as strong as the Christian’s basis for loving humanity. Since Carrier has failed to make a discredit the first basis stated by Moreland for loving humanity, Carrier’s argument fails in its entirety.


Tenax said…
I'm getting to this so late, BK you might not see it, but I'd add a couple things.

I've wanted to write something on the A/I sacrifice-command for some time but only have a few minutes now. Things to consider: the way individual readers within cultures have interpreted that story over the centuries has changed. Our current popular reading, that God asked Abe to do something immoral, something outside the purvey of a good deity has not always been the way the story is read (and without an actual perfectly moral/loving deity, I'd like to know where the deity-standard many get upset over is coming from, accepted human behavior I guess; as if any God or gods must by definition conform to a human ethic; as if our minds could understand Mind).

For the Jews, this story was often used as justification for their special standing with God: how did we get the unique relationship with the transcendent God we have? Abraham's extreme and utter obedience. They continued to expect God to rescue them, to deliver them; they felt God was a just and fair God, and they wrote the A/I story. Is the story historical? Coming centuries after the supposed fact? It almost doesn't matter. Certainly we have nothing remotely close to an eyewitness account. God may have actually done no such thing. Faith may have been asked for, and expressed, in other ways.

But it must be noted that child sacrifice was not uncommon in the ancient middle east, not at all. There are echoes of it, and clear proscriptions for delivering children from it within YHWH worship, in the Torah. So what we have in the A/I story is a God who asks A to make the ultimate choice, pay the ultimate price so many other gods were asking parents to make, and then steps in to show mercy other gods did not show. Asking for a child on the altar was not YHWH's innovation. Letting the child go free and providing a subsitute sacrifice was.

Also, the Christ-echo is eery and clear. Abraham, the first human in the covenant relationship with Israel's God, is asked to give his son and then told he doesn't have to. Why? Because God would give his Son millenia later. What Abraham did not have to do, God himself did through Christ.

It's a powerful story, but so often misread as an example of an unethical deity...such readings are historically naive, frankly, and distorted by modern perception.

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