It’s easy to deride philosophy classes. Few people have jobs as philosophers, so the entire field is easy to dismiss as esoteric navel-gazing, dooming most of its practitioners to lives of unskilled menial labor. But there are few classes outside my specialization that I found more beneficial than my philosophy courses, because I acquired very valuable skills there. Philosophy courses present difficult problems, problems that require very careful terms and proofs, and set their students on them to flex and build brain pathways. Those problems touch on virtually the whole of human experience, between the various classical branches: What is real (metaphysics)? What is knowledge (epistemology)? What is truth (both)? What is beauty (aesthetics)? What is good (ethics)?
And every time my philosophy courses got around to that last question, one particular lump of lunacy would be treated with vastly outsized seriousness: the divine command theory.
Of historical and geopolitical relevance, the divine command theory of morality stipulates that people find out what is morally upright and what is morally deplorable by consulting with religious forces. One version posits that a deity reflects what is good, and that goodness and divine will can both be surmised by elucidating the other. A more toxic version proposes that the deity defines what is good, by approving or disapproving of a thing, and thus that the only reliable attribute of moral conduct is that it comports with the deity’s wishes in that specific moment.
As an atheist, why I found this part of every ethics course somewhere between obnoxious and deplorable (leaning on the former) should be obvious. Still, one doesn’t have to regard the nonexistence of deities as the sole rational conclusion from the facts of our world to recognize that it is really hard to get gods to talk. So, asking them what they think of this or that course of action, this or that cultural practice, or this or that breakfast cereal is not an effective way of learning what is or isn’t morally defensible, regardless of whether one’s worldview holds that doing so ought to get one true results. The world’s gods are, at best, silent, and that means that “divine” command theory, in practice, delegates responsibility over ethics to those who claim to interpret the deity’s will through more obscure signals. “Divine” command theory automatically decomposes to hierarch command theory, and for more independent-minded theists, anyone command theory, assigning authority over right and wrong to the designated person and staking their authority on hypothetical congruence with religious dogma.
Textual authority, it turns out, is highly mutable. When one claims to be offering the plain-language version of the word of God, one is very likely to instead use the deity as a mouthpiece for one’s own moral intuitions, claiming God’s authority as one’s own. Reading several thousand pages and charting out those contradictions to try to tease out an overall conclusion is somewhere between impossible and far more trouble than it is worth, so few try and fewer take the results of such efforts particularly seriously. In books as deliberately cryptic and riddled with contradictions as most holy texts, it is trivial to select any conclusion and find the references after the fact to support it, so literally any opinion ends up being divinely ordained. This error is shared between those who hold conservative, unambiguously evil views of God’s will and those who prefer softer, more “liberal” gods. Both read into their claimed authority what they want to read, because what’s there is alternately incomprehensible, nonsensical, and contradictory.
But it’s worse than that. Those who hold to such authoritarian moral theory, even if their actual views are of the “Jesus is love” persuasion, are telling those who are not protected by existing religious “morality” that their support for equal rights is contingent on God not breaking radio silence and telling them that, actually, he DID mean all of the viciously anti-humanist things in the Bible/Quran/Book of Mormon/name-your-favorite. Such believers are telling the beleaguered atheists, QUILTBAGs, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and immigrants of the world that they do not think oppressing common targets is bad in and of itself, but only because God said so. And if God said otherwise, or (more chilling) someone convinced them God said otherwise, or that God didn’t exist at all, they would spin on a bigoted dime.
That is not an ally who is motivated by a deep and inescapable empathy for the suffering of others and the understanding that being properly human includes regarding the suffering of others as something to be abhorred. That is an ally who is an ally because someone told them to be. Or so they claim of themselves when they claim religion as their impetus.
On a practical level, those of us interested in moral progress may sometimes have to settle for allies who would turn on us if God asked them to, because we know that a nonexistent force cannot ask them to do anything and such aid gets us access to greater audiences. But we want better, we need better, and we need to demand that our allies recognize that what a holy text or revered theologian says or doesn’t say is not even a little bit relevant to whether people ought to be treated fairly and whether people need to suffer for actions that don’t harm anyone.
The others are not allies of conscience. They are allies of convenience.