Rauser's Moorean Shift

[Note: I watched some of a recent online interview with Dr. Rauser — just enough to get the gist — and wrote the following about his argument this morning. I wasn't aware that the debate with Loftus was already tonight. Maybe the following will be useful for those who watch it. I should also add that there may be additional details to Rauser's argument that this doesn't cover.]

In the book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (p. 124), William Lane Craig replies to the argument:

If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist
Gratuitous suffering exists
Therefore, God does not exist

by means of a so-called “Moorean shift,” in this case by arguing instead:

If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist
God exists
Therefore, gratuitous suffering does not exist.

(This is called a Moorean shift after the British philosopher G. E. Moore, who famously turned arguments for philosophical skepticism — e.g., that you might be a brain in a vat — around in this manner.)

What Craig is doing is pointing out that one can deny a premise of an argument if doing so seems more reasonable than accepting its conclusion. He thinks the existence of God is more certain than that of gratuitous suffering. Therefore, rather than accepting the conclusion that God does not exist, he finds it more reasonable to deny the claim that gratuitous suffering exists. Of course, we can easily disagree with Craig's use of this strategy here. The existence of gratuitous suffering (suffering that is morally unjustified and which therefore an all-powerful and perfectly good being would not allow) seems far more certain than the existence of the being himself. So there are good and bad uses of this strategy.

Randall Rauser is in effect making the same kind of move with respect to the question of biblical genocide. His central claim is that our moral intuitions tell us that a good God would never command genocide, and that therefore we must interpret passages in the Bible that appear to show he did so some other way. What he is doing, then, amounts to answering the argument which states that on the Christian worldview:

What the Bible says about God's commands is true
In the Bible, it says God commanded genocide
Therefore, God commanded genocide

by instead arguing:

What the Bible says about God's commands is true
God would never command genocide
Therefore, it does not say that God commanded genocide in the Bible.

The question, then, is whether Rauser's use of the strategy is reasonable. His claim can succeed only if it makes more sense to accept the second premise in the above argument than the second premise in the previous one. And this is exactly what Rauser believes. God, in his view, is the perfectly good Jesus, who would never ask someone to do anything evil. Rauser is therefore absolutely certain about the premise “God would never command genocide.”

Now, the premise which states that in the Bible God did command it does seem pretty certain too, of course. After all, one can read words to that effect in Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and elsewhere. But Rauser argues that, contrary to appearances, the words there must not mean what they say. To suppose they do is inconsistent with the absolutely certain principle that God would never command such a thing — hence his explanation that perhaps those words are hyperbole, or even that they are irony meant to imply the exact opposite of what they say.

The first thing to note about Rauser's argument is that it cannot have any force against someone who does not accept that the Bible is the word of a perfectly good God. Obviously, the nonbeliever's claim is not that there is a God and that he commanded genocide; it is simply that the character referred to as “God” in the Bible commanded genocide. And there is nothing unbelievable about the claim that an ancient people's mythological deity did such a thing. Seen this way, the claim “God would never command genocide” isn't at all certain.

Rauser's argument might best be interpreted as aimed at believers who are struggling with those difficult biblical passages. It is applicable to atheists only as a way to defend the internal consistency of the Christian worldview. But even seen this way the argument is extremely weak. It is much more reasonable (though still problematic) for a believer to suppose that the words attributed to God in those passages aren't actually God's words than to interpret them the way Rauser does. The idea that the passages do not mean what they say reeks of desperation. And there are other problems with his overall argument. His main reason for claiming God's perfection and the impossibility of God-commanded genocide is the supposed perfection of Jesus. Thus, in God or Godless?, he says that “Jesus's whole ministry was directed against the in-group/out-group dichotomies that make evils like genocide possible” (p. 58). But the biblical Jesus wasn't perfect, and Rauser's claim is simply false. In Matthew 15:22-28, for example, Jesus refers to Canaanites as dogs, and initially refuses to heal a Canaanite woman's daughter. That doesn't sound like the Jesus Rauser believes in. One might even argue instead that Jesus's attitude toward the Canaanites goes some way toward explaining the genocide commands. For a believer, that is a more honest, even if more troubling, way of arguing for the internal consistency of scripture.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.