According to Simon Clarke, religion is “the biggest obstacle to thinking clearly about social and political issues.” Yes, the biggest. [UPDATE 6th August 2010: that link no longer works. Here is a link to a different presentation of what looks like the same article.]
The main reason that he gives is roughly like this: Some people think that religion provides the foundation of morality, so rather then use their own mental steam to try to figure out the answers to moral and social questions, they simply appeal to a list of commandments, and that is that. No clear thought is required. When it comes to assessing the claim that religion is the basis of morality, Clarke declares, “Nothing could be further from the truth. What religion says is irrelevant to deciding what we ought to do.”
And how does Dr Clarke lay out and defend his case for this claim? Here’s where alarm bells start ringing. Clarke is a qualified teacher of philosophy, and yet his reason for making this claim is that “The fallacy of grounding morality upon religion was pointed out by Plato over two thousand years ago.” Plato? Oh no, could it really be? Yes. Dr Clarke is appealing to Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue as a rebuttal to the claim that morality is theologically grounded, that is, based in God’s will somehow. The particular line of argument from Plato that Clarke praises (but never considers objections to) is the view that since God could tell us to do terrible things like drown kittens and shoot people and we would still know it was wrong, it must be false that morality is theologically grounded.
This is almost painful. The literature on divine command ethics is packed full of responses to Euthyphro type objections, as I have detailed elsewhere. Objections of this type are now doing nothing more than trading on ignorance – either the ignorance of the writer or (more troublingly) the ignorance that the writer is hoping his audience will have. But here’s what makes it plain that it is simply Dr Clarke’s ignorance at play. He tells us that “Plato’s pretty convincing demonstration has been ignored by the vast majority of people in the intervening millennia.” Wow. The reality, as philosophers of religion and meta-ethics know all too well, is that absolutely decisive responses to Plato’s Euthyphro are repeatedly being ignored by philosophers trying to score easy points by repeating Plato and ignoring two thousand years of history (especially the last half century).
Like the stern teacher, Clarke tells us that “It is no doubt true that appealing to religion is easier, but this of course does not make such appeals appropriate. To avoid difficult questions by taking the easy way out is irresponsible.” Firstly, avoiding difficult rebuttals by taking the easy way out and simply not acknowledging them is equally irresponsible, but more to the point, it is a fundamental error to assume that belief in theologically grounded ethics amounts to taking the easy way out.
This is not hard to demonstrate. Take a very easy to understand principle that many non-religious ethicists take seriously: The harm principle. Simple, right? Just don’t harm anyone. But would anyone call this the easy way out merely because the rule is a simple one? Now we’ve got to figure out which actions do harm people, make decisions about – where harm cannot be avoided – which harms are more tolerable than others, determine which entities can actually suffer harm, and so forth. It’s not simple by any means. But Clarke has taken the “irresponsible” route of assuming that “what is right is what God wants me to do” boils down to a simplistic decision making process when it quite clearly is not. The fact that morality is rooted in God is not necessarily an epistemological issue, meaning that it is about the basis of morality, not about how we know moral facts. What if, for example, God’s basic rule was “do not harm others”? We would then have to do all the work of the secular thinker who embraced the harm principle. Dr Clarke’s treatment of religiously grounded ethics is therefore simply unfair. His talk about those who “give up on reason and turn to religion” is neither responsible nor accurate, and reflects just the kind of haste and mental laziness he accuses others of.