The Harris-Craig debate: addenda

Two things:

Harris’ critique of divine command theory

I had to roll my eyes at part 2 of Luke’s review of the debate, where Luke claims Harris’ entire first rebuttal was “fail” because it was all irrelevant. But Luke simply ignores one of the most important points of the entire speech: that Craig’s moral theory entails that if God were to command the slaughter of an entire tribe, it would be moral, and that if the Taliban really were following God’s commands, they would be moral.

This is, as Harris says, a psychotic view. If he wanted to be pedantic, he could have added “any view which entails that is not only psychotic but also false,” but I don’t think failure to be pedantic invalidates the argument. Pace Craig, it isn’t enough for the divine command theorist to say “well maybe God didn’t command those things,” because they’re still committed to the if-then claim. And Craig’s only response to the illustration of the Taliban was to misrepresent Harris’ position and pretend that he and Harris actually agreed on that issue!

It’s sort of weird to see Luke saying the things he said. The first part of Luke’s review had some good criticisms of Craig’s views, but when he gets to Harris making very similar criticisms, he declares all of Harris’ points irrelevant.

Craig’s “modal argument” against Harris

One of Craig’s arguments in his rebuttal was that, in The Moral Landscape, Harris says that well-being and morality might come apart if “sinners” could flourish just as much as “saints.” Luke comments that that argument is “sound if it represents Harris’ position correctly,” and I do think it was the best point Craig made all night.

From Harris’ book, I get the impression that he really, really wants it to be true that doing the right thing will maximize your own well-being. I think Harris is wrong to think this important, since it seems pretty easy to see how doing the right thing might require some real sacrifices, ones that won’t be balanced out in the long run. And in general, think that Harris doesn’t adequately address questions about how to balance different people’s needs. So in that sense Craig has a point.

Trouble is, the idea that “doing the right thing will maximize your well-being,” and the things Craig quoted, are things that Harris never said during the debate. As far as I can tell, they also aren’t entailed by anything Harris said that night, nor do they strike me as central to Harris’ book. Harris actually makes quite a few gestures in the direction of utilitarianism, which certainly clearly says you sometimes have to sacrifice for the sake of others.

Craig makes a big show of claiming to have refuted everything his opponent said in a given debate, but often his actual strategy is to ignore everything his opponent said there and attack them for things they’ve said elsewhere. This is something I first picked up on when I read the transcript of his debate with Bart Ehrman–I wasn’t impressed with the strategy then, and I wasn’t impressed when he used it with Harris.

Notice the contrast with Harris’ criticisms of Craig: Craig explicitly made divine command theory a central part of his case throughout the debate. He didn’t get up in his opening statement and say, “yup, slaughtering children, establishing a theocracy, I think it’s all OK if you get God’s approval”–but it’s nevertheless clear what divine command theory entails.

On a related note, while I do think Harris’ views are flawed, I also think he often has good responses to his opponents. I do not think he can be refuted simply by saying “is-out problem!” or “Moore’s naturalistic fallacy!” Nor is it accurate to accuse Harris of never having studied philosophy. Please keep those things in mind when you criticize him.

Leave a comment


  1. I’m no divine command theorist, but I’m totally unmoved by arguments like this:

    “…Craig’s moral theory entails that if God were to command the slaughter of an entire tribe, it would be moral, and that if the Taliban really were following God’s commands, they would be moral.”

    One way to see why such arguments are unsound is to consider a parallel case. Consider this conditional (for some obviously repugnant X):

    1. If there were a universal, absolute moral duty to do X, then everyone should do X

    Does pointing to (1) constitute a good objection to, say, deontological ethical views? It does not. The deontologist should emphasize that (1) has an impossible antecedent, and that whether it is true or false, it doesn’t really tell against the view. It is simply not possible that there be a universal, absolute moral duty to, say, torture infants for the fun of it, and so nothing of much interest follows from (1). I’m inclined to think that the divine command theorist is in a similar position with respect to conditionals like this:

    2. If God were to command everyone to do X, then everyone should do X

    Just as with (1), the antecedent of (2) is impossible. It is simply not possible for God to command everyone to, say, torture infants for the fun of it. And so nothing of much interest follows from (2). And notice that the divine command theorist and the atheist who thinks God is impossible will agree on one important point; they both think that it is impossible for God to command everyone to X (though for different reasons). They will agree, in other words, that the counterfactual in question has an impossible antecedent.

  2. Chris Hallquist

    Invoking the parallel to deontology strikes me as a better response than claiming those conditionals are vacuous.

    However, are divine command theorists in a position to claim the antecedents of the conditionals are impossible? If there’s no standard of goodness, justice, etc. outside of God, it’s unclear to me what claiming that God has a good, just nature amounts to, and therefore unclear what would make certain commands impossible. (And FWIW Craig doesn’t actually make that move in many cases.)

    Just out of curiosity, why aren’t you a divine command theorist?

  3. I’m not a divine command theorist because I think there’s little pressure to provide an explanation (God-invoking or otherwise) for truths about our moral obligations. Why? Because I think, roughly, that a) there’s little pressure to provide an explanation for necessary truths, and b) truths about our moral obligations are necessary truths.

  4. Hey Chris, Just for the record, I’m a deist, and I’ve taken an interest in learning about chrisianity and atheism. I’ve always had a few questions that I’ve wanted to ask ateists such as yourself when it comes to being critical of religion.

    Firstly- why do atheists claim that the majorty of biblical scholars believe that jesus was an endtime prophet? To my knowledge (and according to wikipedia), the view of Jesus being a “good teacher” is accapted by 3/4 to 3/5 of all critical historians. That means that the “end time prophet” and all other theories are accepted by only a quarter of the member of the field.

    Secondly, why are so many atheist historians so confident with thmselves. I have read essays on the secular web and what there critics have to say, and they both seem to be equallyunimpressed by eachother. It leads me to wonder why some christians leave the christian faith (Like Ehrman). The arguments and concensus are on their side. Why did they leave. I mean, considering how many refutations I’ve read of “Jesus interupted”, I don’t know why he is so confident with himself. And why he makes so many concensus calls (which aren’t always accurate).

    Thirdly- which theory do you think is the best one and why? What books/reasons/evidence led you to your beliefs and, more importantly, reject every other one.

    Fourthly- The state of atheism is not looking very good. Atheist philosiphy started to decline recently with the advent of religious philosiphy returning; Mythicists are ignoring criticisms and looking inept; Apologists are answering atheists with even more veracity thanbefore and lastly, that high quality athest resources are becoming harder and harder to find.

    Which leads to fifthly- It just seems like most of the things that hit the shelves that are critical of christianity are just poorly thought out resurfacings of arguments that carry no weight among serious scholars. I know I sould like Craig when I use appeals to athority- but it is stupid to think that you can mae the best judgements of arguements when you know nothing of ancient history. I’m sorry, but if a large amount of experts disagree with something (ID), than maybe there is something wrong with it.

    Sorry for the huge post, but I am interested in what you have to say. I am interested in scrutinizing atheism and christianity equally as hard, and am intereted in who has the best answers. Peace.

  5. Andrew, your first post was spot-on. In reply to your second post, do you mean “necessary” in the sense of analytic or necessary in (for want of a better more, technical word) a post-Kripkean sense? If the latter, I think your point is more or less right. Given entity x of a specific nature, the moral law emerges, in its basic principles, of necessity.

  6. Stag, I had the latter in mind (I would call it “broadly logical” or “metaphysical” necessity).

  7. Chris Hallquist

    @Andrew: This almost makes me wish I accepted the cosmological argument or something. If I did, I could use your line. As it stands, I think there’s little pressure to provide an explanation for much of anything… but that response doesn’t have quite the zing of yours.

    (To put my view in a less cavalier way: a good explanation is a wonderful thing to have. But I don’t think “we absolutely must have an explanation for this” is ever a good way to start a philosophical argument.)

  8. Deisticially, I can’t speak for Chris but I reject Christianity (and all religions) because they all claim knowledge of supernatural phenomena without providing sufficient evidence. Worse still, the universe–insofar as we can tell–appears to be entirely natural, and there is a long and clear history of humans incorrectly interpreting complex natural phenomena as supernatural (lightning, volcanos, the ocean, the sun, the moon, etc.).

    This is precisely what one expects from creatures who suddenly (evolutionarily speaking) find themselves with brains sophisticated enough to imagine & store abstract models of the universe. Fear of death and other unknowns leave big gaps for the imagination to fill in–is it surprising that before we understood lightning we dreamed-up a supernaturally powerful human to explain it? Hence a god in our image? Note however that this does not explicitly endorse atheism, but it does reject theism. Deism and pantheism are still largely compatible with a natural world.

    If one accepts the biblical account as sufficient evidence to support alternative hypothesis (e.g. Christianity), then it becomes difficult to reject other extraordinary accounts as insufficient evidence, i.e. Islam, Hinduism, Judaism (sort of needed for Christian), alien abductions, Scientology, etc.. (There are humans alive right now who claim to be Jesus with disciples claiming to have divine inspiration and so on, but most Christians would not believe a fellow standing next to them over a Very Old Book.)

    Other problems arise with theism as well: if I do accept it, the old testament makes it very clear that I disagree with the Abrahamic god’s opinions of right and wrong, so I’d have to be a misotheist, or dystheist, because I cannot accept the god of Abraham’s commands of genocide, mutilation, misogyny, and slavery, as good.

    One last point, the book itself makes much more sense when read as the uninformed superstitious beliefs of a bunch of desert goat herders at the dawn of civilization, rather than a divinely inspired work of an all-powerful creator. This becomes increasingly obvious as our technology rapidly grows more sophisticated. It appears that we are becoming more empathetic as well, with global efforts to take care of the poor, women, minorities, abolish slavery and abuse, all being relatively modern movements. In light of this growing empathic sense, we periodically reinterpret our religious texts; “The Book of Mormon” tells them how to read the bible, Christian Science’s “Key to the Scriptures” tells them how to read the bible, the new testament tells you how to read the old testament, the old testament itself contains layers of new rules and edited older works… it all runs counter to the claims that a true know-it-all gave us real answers 2000 years ago.

    To me, atheism is the default position by an Occam’s razor sort of reasoning–in the words of Laplace, concerning god, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

    Sorry if this is rambling. Best wishes to all!

  9. Cody- My main issue with atheism is that it is slow to react to it’s critics. It seems like Ehrman just keeps churning out books, while ignoring what his critics have to say. I also find the lack of secular scholarly consensus intriguing. Ben Witherington did a scathing review of “Jesus interupted”- and how scholars don’t even agree with him on most of what he claims they do. I am interested in hearing the answers to my questions above. BTW I am not a creationist. If you wish to continue this conversation via email, that would be really great (I don’t want to post too many unrelated messages on chris’ blog). If anyone is interested in this topic, feel free to email me at

  10. Lrn2modallogic

  11. Chris Hallquist


    I’ve read Witherington’s review of Misquoting Jesus, and was not impressed. As far as I can tell, Witherington conceded Ehrman’s main point in a wonderfully euphemistic way: “Ehrman is right that later pious scribes sometimes over-egged the pudding, to use a British phrase.”

    Witherington’s main complaint seemed to amount to saying that while Ehrman was right, it was wrong of him to tell this stuff to non-scholars, because it might draw the wrong conclusions from the facts Ehrman was presenting.

    Other criticism I read of Misquoting Jesus struck me as similarly unimpressive. Ehrman responded to it a bit in Jesus Interrupted, and it doesn’t strike me as deserving of a longer response.

    I just Googled Witherington’s review of Jesus Interrupted, and my reaction was TLDR–especially since the first several paragraphs (which I did read) were lots of rhetoric and little of substance. If you’re so inclined, though, cut and past into a comment whatever you think the most damning bits are, and I’ll take a look at them.

  12. Oh- no I’ve noticed that most apologists won’t say he’s wrong. Ehrman is correct about the fact that the NT contains errors. The problem is, tho, that most liberal christians don’t agree with how much he over emphasizes them. And although there was an immature amount of rhetoric in the review- their were a few issues I don’t think Ehrman answered.

    For one- Ehrman made it sound like most scholars agreed with him- which is true- except that most scholars don’t think that this destroys their faith. I also don’t know how Ehrman replied to his critics in regards to being called “unqualified” (Ben calls him this during the review of “misquoting Jesus”. It seems odd that one of the biggest Jesus scholars would supposedly use “outdated information” and claim that his teacher, Metzer, would agree, even tho Metzer did not agree with Ehrman, and openly criticised him. It’s all there in the review.

    If you know of any serious atheist historians that look over these kinds of things, it would be great. It is becoming a trend that atheists just claim “Jesus never existed”, and never look into it deeper. It seems like only a few atheists are even in touch with what scholars and historical apologists are saying. Plus- the most predominant stance amongst atheists is the mythicist stance. And there are so many critical reactions to them it’s and to take them seriously.

    So, if you know any good historical counter apologists (like NT WRONG) that’ be great.

  13. * Oh yeah- before you respond- I am fully aware that Ben Witherington isn’t a great source of information. I have read blogs from NT WRONG that verify that he does also stretch the truth. I would just like to know why their are so few like him.

  14. Deistically: “It seems like only a few atheists are even in touch with what scholars and historical apologists are saying.”

    Well, sure. Most of us have other things we do. To take myself as an example, I am a musician and spend much of my time studying that, with religion and other things taking less of a priority. To put it bluntly, I have not read “Blackwell’s history of natural theology” and don’t really have plans to. We are not all philosophers, nor can we be, otherwise who would create the rest of the culture?
    But the same is also true for theists: how many of your day-to-day Christians are theologians or really delve into what they believe? How many of them read books like “The Impossibility of God” or “God: The Failed Hypothesis” to test their knowledge?

  15. Chris Hallquist

    I think it’s rather silly to read Ehrman as saying, “A majority of NT scholars think these facts should destroy your faith.” I think he just means to say that a majority of NT scholars agree with him on the facts.

    In fact, Ehrman has said he isn’t trying to get anyone to give up Christianity. I’d personally be happy to see him telling people to become atheists, but he isn’t actually doing that.

    Furthermore, I think Ehrman is clearly right to suggest that many Christians will find the facts he’s reporting troubling. The amount of malice folks like Witherington have directed Ehrman’s way makes me think that, underneath all their bluster, they themselves are troubled by the facts.

    BTW, I should have a post up Monday that responds to you on a bunch of other things.

  16. Thank you. It is hard to find atheists/agnostics that actually respond to apologists. It makes you wonder if:

    A)the apologists are right and atheists are too stubborn to reply


    B)The apologists are wrong and atheists just aren’t wasting their time answering them.

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