What if God Exists?
by Benjamin Studebaker
When confronted with right wing social conservatism, the left usually adopts one of two strategies. On the one hand, it can argue for tolerance of differing viewpoints, but this argument is only persuasive for those who themselves are not so certain of what they believe as to legislate it. In other words, the tolerance argument only works for people who were already susceptible to accept social progressivism. Alternatively, the left sometimes approaches this problem by rejecting the existence of god so as to undermine the foundation of the conservative belief system, but in order for social conservatives to exist in the first place, their level of confidence in their belief in a god must be very high. These arguments, in many cases, are doomed to fail. So what else can the left argue? Well perhaps the left can seek common ground with the right by accepting, for the purposes of argument, the existence of god.
The left will never be able to unequivocally disprove god, and arguments concerning giving precedence to the least complex solution or embracing beliefs only when there is evidence for them will be responded to with declarations of faith. So rather than embroil ourselves in the “god exists; god does not exist” debate, let’s start from an assumption of god’s existence and see where that takes us. This is not an argument on my part for secularists to actually embrace a belief in god, only that they avoid disputing the point in discussions of social policy and instead adopt alternative means of argument.
We have to be clear what we are taking on board here. When we say we accept a belief in a god for the sake of argument, we are saying we accept an immortal, omnipotent being. This is a being that is both eternal and all-powerful. There are numerous other features of this being that are often claimed, but are in dispute among theologians, namely the following:
- Determinism/Free Will–is god interventionist and/or have a divine plan, or is god non-interventionist and/or permit free will?
- Moral Value–is god a benevolent, malevolent, or mixed force? Does god have ethical beliefs? What are they? Should we follow them?
- Evolution/Creation–did god set evolution in motion or is evolution not true?
There are probably others, but you get the idea–all we take on board initially is that god is immortal and omnipotent. That’s it. These other debates within theology are now open to us.
What we first can observe is that social conservatives typically embrace religious deontology, the moral philosophy that our ethics should be derived from religious texts, the teaching of religious figures, all in an effort to follow the moral philosophy of the deity. By accepting for the sake of argument the existence of this deity, we can now use in our argument various problems within theology in an effort to convince the religious not to translate their belief into social conservatism.
The first question to ask the social conservative is what informs them of the ethical beliefs of the deity? How do they know that god embraces the social conservative agenda? There are only two viable answers to this question:
- It is what a specific religious text says.
- It is what a specific church teaches.
This point can be pushed, however. If a person subscribes morally to a text (say, the new testament, the old testament, the Quran, etc.) or to a church (Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Sunni Islam, and so on), then the claim being made is that everything in the given text or taught by the given church encompasses the sum total of morality. What we can then point out is that with very few exceptions, almost no one follows to the letter the moral prescriptions of any religious text or church. For instance, in western countries, you never find Jews carrying out Leviticus 24:14, and if you did you would very likely be quite horrified:
Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
In any case, you never hear them appeal to St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:18:
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
The Quran,while softer on slaves than St. Peter, does permit believers to keep them in 24:58:
O ye who believe! Let your slaves, and those of you who have not come to puberty, ask leave of you at three times.
Presumably none of us agree that blasphemers should be stoned, women should not be allowed to be teachers or have authority, or that it is permissible to keep slaves. It is consequently not possible for a person who believes these things are wrong to simultaneously truthfully claim that their moral philosophy derives from the works of which these are part. A religious person might well say that these verses must be read in context with the cultures in which they were written, but this argument only serves to further undermine a moral philosophy derived from religion by implying that either:
- The deity that composed the works has beliefs that are subjective and relative to social circumstances, in which case the texts cannot provide moral guidance in contexts that differ from those that prevailed historically.
- The works are composed by fallible human beings and consequently any moral claim made by them is fallible.
Presumably social conservatives reject both of those explanations and maintain that the texts really are the word of god and that their moral claims are universal, but if this is true, then we have a god that embraces numerous moral beliefs that the religious abhor. This means either:
- It is true that slavery, sexism, and religious intolerance are bad things. In this case, god is immoral.
- It is not true that slavery, sexism, and religious intolerance are bad things. In this case, god is moral and man has acted wrongly.
This leaves social conservatives in a position of either having to concede that their belief in a god does not translate to any concrete set of moral principles or of having to become supporters of slavery/sexism/stoning blasphemers.
Presumably social conservatives will not embrace slavery/sexism/stoning blasphemers, in which case they must acknowledge not only that their belief in a god does not translate to a coherent moral philosophy (because god can advocate things that are morally wrong), but that their present moral beliefs (such as “slavery is wrong”) must derive from a non-religious source the value of which they hold higher than the commandments of the deity. In order to believe that slavery, for example, is wrong, one must have some other source of morality outside of religion to which one appeals, one which is considered more important than what god wills. This could be secular deontology, it could be consequentialism, it could come from any number of places, but it cannot be derived from a religion, because no religious text condemns slavery.
The net outcome of this discussion is one in which the social conservative is permitted to retain a religious belief but denied a route by which that religious belief can translate into moral beliefs and consequently into social policy. As far as I can see, there are no logical loopholes here. What do you think?