All posts by John Messerly

Is There A Divine Plan?

The front ends of two vehicles after an accident

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

After a near-fatal car accident, philosophy professor Darrell Arnold penned this essay.

“Jesus And Car Wrecks”

I was recently in a car accident. It was a serious one in which I suffered a broken rib, a broken collarbone, a fractured ankle, stitches on my right wrist and right hand, and stitches from the tip of my nose to the top and along the bridge of my nose to my eyebrows. My nose was fully split open. The insurance assessor who looked at the car agreed with my initial assessment when he saw it: I was lucky to be alive.

A few days later my wife put a notice on Facebook that I was healing well and was going to be fine. I was released from hospital four days after the accident and again put a picture on Facebook showing me to look pretty good — from a distance with bad lighting — for a person who had just been run over by a Toyota Tacoma. Many condolences came in, along with well wishes. Many people thanked God that I was alive. Some assured me that God must have a special plan for me since he saved me from death in this accident.

The mythologizing of this event in our context, of course, provides an opportunity to reflect on the idea of a divine plan that people often invoke when speaking in such contexts or, as I will put it more provocatively and more specifically for the given situation, Jesus and car wrecks. Many religious systems have some idea of a divine plan. I’m going to get at Christianity’s in a somewhat roundabout way by speaking of the influence upon it by an ancient Greek school of thought, Stoicism.

The Stoics, who emerged in the third century BCE,  thought that everything that happens does so in accordance with the dictates of rationality, the logos. This rational core of reality isn’t imposed on nature by a deity outside of it. Rather it is imposed internally by nature itself, which unfolds in accordance with its own rational, divine plan. We, humans, have no freedom to influence the course of events around us. What we can do is change our attitudes towards the things that do occur. This is the key to our happiness or tranquility.

Christians, influenced by Stoics and others, developed a similar notion of Christian Providence. Everything that occurs, many Christians believed and believe, is ordained by God’s plan. Here though, for the most part, the Christian tradition has seen the plan not as imposed by nature itself but by a transcendent God on nature.

To get back to my accident: In alignment with this view, it was ordained by God’s plan, as was my healing after the accident. The fact that I’m alive now rather than not is because God, in his divine wisdom, didn’t think it was my time to go yet. God, as the giver of life, can in this view take it whenever he pleases. The giver of life is not culpable for also being the taker of life. In many cases, he appears to use reckless drivers or other irresponsible parties to achieve his plan.

While for the Stoics there was no chance of changing the divine plan, one was simply to learn to accept it, for Christians, as well as other members of Abrahamic religions, questions have arisen about whether God might change his plan depending on prayers and supplications. But that leads us to another set of questions, which I can’t explore here.

The views I am exploring here are of course hefty metaphysical ideas on their own part; and they are awash with questions: If there is a divine plan, how would we know what it is? Why should we accept that there is one? Beyond that, to accept that things like traffic accidents — that lead in some cases to death, and some cases not — are all part of God’s plan us in some logical conundrums.

Moving from this idea of God’s plan to Jesus’s plan — something I want to mention since I’ve titled this “Jesus and car wrecks” — of course, makes the argument more difficult still. It is, I guess, less cumbersome — though surely cumbersome enough — to show that an accident like mine was God’s plan than that it was Jesus’s plan since to show the latter, one would have to show the plausibility of the Trinity and other such things — no small feat.

But let me pursue for a moment the idea that this accident and my surviving it are parts of God’s plan. This involves us from the outset in a paradox of sorts. For if it was God’s plan that I was in the accident, then it appears that we must claim that the accident should have happened. This implies that it was God’s plan for the person who was driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with this phone to have been driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with his phone, whichever of those things led him to veer into my lane and crash his Toyota Tacoma into the windshield of my Prius C. In short, if the accident was supposed to happen, and the driver’s recklessness was necessary for the accident, then the driver was supposed to be driving recklessly.

The paradox is that while this metaphysical argument implies that this recklessness should have happened, we typically also have a moral imperative that runs in the opposite direction — that this driver shouldn’t have been driving recklessly. He should have been paying attention. He failed by driving recklessly to live up not only to his moral obligations but to the basic requirements of the law. The paradox then is that — in line with such an argument  — this driver both should and should not have been driving recklessly.

Now philosophers have long dealt with this basic conundrum — since Heraclitus at least — and their ways of dealing with the problem typically betray something of a sleight-of-hand. One typical route for the devout is to say that human morality is simply a conventional perspective, surpassed by a divine perspective — well, whenever God decides. In that case, the normal moral rules that we follow do not really hold in all circumstances. They are something like rules of thumb for us but surpassed as God wants them to be. So in our case, while the driver of the Tacoma normally should not drive recklessly, on this morning he should have since on this morning his driving recklessly was necessary to carry out God’s will — namely, an accident in which I was nearly killed.

Here paradoxically again God might work with the two parties of the accident in some subtle and mysterious ways. Perhaps the driver of the other car needs to awaken to the fact that he normally drives too recklessly. This accident might teach him a lesson. Or it will push him toward some moral reform since he is confronted with the potential shortness of someone else’s life. And who likes that? Perhaps I needed a near-death experience. Maybe the accident will awaken in me a gratitude for the preciousness of every day for the rest of my life.

Or some might think that a near-death experience should lead me to put aside any questions in God’s existence and devote the rest of my life to God’s service or some such thing. Here then the guilty driver should still feel guilty for driving recklessly even though it was meant to be. He should learn from this “mistake” that was meant to be and waken up to his normal responsibilities to drive safely. I should learn from this accident preciousness of life or to put aside any doubt of God’s existence or some such thing.

This way of addressing the question of Jesus and car wrecks (or God and car wrecks more generally) is related to the classical problem of evil. Why if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving is there evil in the world? Or more specifically, why would such a deity allow bad things to happen to good people? An all-powerful God could have made me drive three seconds faster on September 25, 2018, so that I wasn’t in precisely the right spot to be run over by an inattentive driver in a head-on collision. He could have had the other driver finish reading the note on his phone this seconds earlier and look up from his phone, turn with the curve and avoid the accident. Or he could have had him not drop the cigarette, or not fall asleep. I’m not sure what his distraction was. Whatever it was, a perfectly loving God could have found some simple way to delay it a couple of seconds.

I have outlined a common way to try to counter the problem of evil — namely to deny that what appears evil is truly evil. Some things, in accord with this view, appear to be evil to humans but from a divine perspective (not comprehensible to humans) those things are really good.

In a typical discussion of this view, God does not create evil itself but merely allows it to occur — something necessary for a world with free will. I don’t want to explore these in more detail. But if one wants to maintain this and that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful then it seems one is forced to maintain that the human understanding of good is inadequate. Another alternative, sometimes combined with that, is to maintain that since God gives life, it is not immoral for him to take it (even according to a kind of human measure). God allows it to happen. This might provide an out — but then it would seem one would give up on saying things when such bad things occur like “It was God’s plan.” “It was meant to be.” “It all happened in accord with God’s will.”

Now one might simply say that the accident was regrettable, surely not a part of God’s will, but bad things are the price we sometimes pay for human freedom. Life thus would have pain and suffering that wasn’t necessary, that wasn’t willed by a divine being and that wasn’t a part of his plan, but that happened anyway because this God gave up some of his power to people to do things like play with their phones while driving killing machines. The bigger logical problem comes because rarely will metaphysicians follow where I have just suggested going. Rather, they will say human freedom caused it, but God willed it anyway.

I think it should be clear that these arguments are little more than rationalizations from a dogmatic starting point — one that requires that no dogma be softened and any contradictions in the argument must be explained away as apparent only. Such dogmatic metaphysics clearly exemplifies what Jean-Paul Sartre had called bad faith.

The only honest course of reasoning simply highlights the inconsistency of this metaphysical thinking and the desperation that we can recognize in what we might call such a metaphysical Hail Mary pass. From a logical point of view I think the matter is relatively simple: Either God willed the accident, in which case he willed what was necessary for it, the reckless driving, or God didn’t will the reckless driving or the accident, but both happened anyway. The accident either should or should not have happened. It was or it wasn’t meant to be. (Alternatively, we could move toward an idea of a deity that is not all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. such as one finds in process theology. But this would really involve us in some parsing that is not possible here.)

I think it is because of a desire for great consolation that people believe that everything in the world happens as it should have happened or was meant to be. This consolation is not itself a reason for believing the truth of that which consoles. And in fact, there is no reason we should need such false security for consolation. The more profound truth, I believe, is that we quite clearly live in a world where many things occur that should not. (my emphasis) If moral reflection shows us anything it is that we live in a world where we are continually faced with moral failings. Things happen that should not have happened. If there is a good God, who wants what is best, then that God would want human beings to live up to their moral obligations. The view of Abrahamic religions is that such a God gave human beings freedom and that many of the failings in the world can be explained by the fact that humans have failed to live up to their ideals. We live in an incomplete world.

Oddly though, while Abrahamic religions tend to believe in such failings in the world as I’ve described, they also tend to believe in divine providence. Yet it is not possible to square the fact that there are so many failings in the world with the view that all that occurs happens in accord with God’s will or providence — that it all should happen. Holding the two views at the same time is simply logically contradictory. We can understand the various psychological reasons people have for doing so — sort of. But that doesn’t make it any less disingenuous.

Why not accept instead the more mature belief that we live in a world full of contingencies, where much happens that never should have? We live in fact in a frayed, tattered world where perhaps all of what is should never have been just as it is — since it only came together out of an entire history of failings and missed opportunities. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and surprising, disappointing and delightful. This requires the abandonment both of the traditional Stoic determinism and of Christian metaphysics that wants to maintain both the freedom of individuals and preordination — and that is often expressed in statements that accidents like mine were all part of God’s plan.

This short reflection leaves aside the general question of God’s existence. (I can say that such an accident does not provide me more reason for believing in God or Jesus, or divine rationality of the world order than I had before.) But what I mean to point out here is that there is an unresolvable tension between some points of theological dogma accepted by many that lead people to say things like this was all part of God’s plan, or God willed my accident or more horrific things still that occur to other people every day.

We can rest assured that those with the belief in God will lean on that belief when they have accidents that never should have happened to work through those and make meaning out of them. But might they do so without some false sense of security that the wrecks were meant to be?

For the non-religious or the less conventionally religious, a contemporary form of Stoicism provides another option. Modern-day Stoics will not argue that everything that occurs in the world is part of some rational plan, as the original Stoics did. Yet we might benefit from accepting a kernel Stoic teaching — that we should not try to change the things that we cannot change but only those things that we can. Other things, acts of “fate” if we want to call them that, which we cannot change, can be learned from. We might even learn moral lessons from them — like to cherish each day as special and beautiful, knowing one day that the last of our days will come.

To know those things one needn’t believe that Jesus wants terrible car wrecks or that God the Father plans them. Indeed, I think there are strong reasons for dismissing such views, since the belief in these things inherently contradicts other ideas that there are compelling reasons to believe — such as the view that we should not drive recklessly, that mistakes happen, that life doesn’t live up to our ideals.

One doesn’t need a thick metaphysics to learn from tragedy that despite its flaws, life can be very beautiful nonetheless — if one is lucky enough to live another day with a body and mind intact, healed or healing.

Truth and Power? Commentary on “Why Fiction Trumps Truth,” by Yuval Noah Harari

I recently read the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s extraordinarily thoughtful piece, Why Fiction Trumps Truth, in the May 24, 2019, New York Times. Here is his opening paragraph:

Many people believe that truth conveys power. If some leaders, religions or ideologies misrepresent reality, they will eventually lose to more clearsighted rivals. Hence sticking with the truth is the best strategy for gaining power. Unfortunately, this is just a comforting myth. In fact, truth and power have a far more complicated relationship, because in human society, power means two very different things.

As a professional philosopher dedicated to the search for truth, I found these words disquieting. The truth doesn’t win out? What exactly does Hariri mean by this?

Harari begins by distinguishing between power “as the ability to manipulate objective realities: to hunt animals, to construct bridges, to cure diseases, to build atom bombs. This kind of power is closely tied to truth. If you believe a false physical theory, you won’t be able to build an atom bomb.”

However, there is another kind of power that

means having the ability to manipulate human beliefs, thereby getting lots of people to cooperate effectively. Building atom bombs requires not just a good understanding of physics, but also the coordinated labor of millions of humans. Planet Earth was conquered by Homo sapiens rather than by chimpanzees or elephants, because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers. And large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories. But these stories need not be true. You can unite millions of people by making them believe in completely fictional stories about God, about race or about economics.

[I also think there is a third kind of power that has to do with manipulating human beings without any interest in getting them to cooperate. In other words, manipulating them simply to dominate, exploit, or enslave them. This may entail getting them to believe common stories about why they should be dominated, exploited, or enslaved but it might not. You might simply overpower them.]

For Harari this “dual nature of power and truth results in the curious fact that we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense.” This is a superb observation. As he puts it:

We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth. Rabbits don’t know that E=MC² , that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that DNA is made of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. On the other hand, rabbits don’t believe in the mythological fantasies and ideological absurdities that have mesmerized countless humans for thousands of years. No rabbit would have been willing to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center in the hope of being rewarded with 72 virgin rabbits in the afterlife.

Now according to Harari, fiction has some significant advantages over truth in terms of uniting people. “First, whereas the truth is universal, fictions tend to be local.” Consequently, we don’t distinguish our tribe from foreigners very well with a story about, for example, how yeast causes bread to rise since foreigners might have come to that same conclusion independently. But if you believe that little green gremlins cause bread to rise by their dancing that’s almost certainly an idea that foreigners wouldn’t have. This false but unique idea then serves to unite you with, and be able to identify, your clan.

The second advantage of fiction over truth has to do with the fact that believing outlandish stories is a reliable signal that one is a member of the group. For example, “If political loyalty is signaled by believing a true story, anyone can fake it. But believing ridiculous and outlandish stories exacts greater cost, and is therefore a better signal of loyalty.” Put differently, anyone can believe a leader who tells the truth but only true devotees will believe nonsensical things.

Third, and most important, the truth is often painful and disturbing. Hence if you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.” Consider an American presidential candidate who tells the whole truth about the sordid American history. This may be admirable but it isn’t a viable election strategy.

Of course, if believing fictional stories becomes habitual, if zealots believe only nonsense this may be self-defeating. But Hariri suggests that even fanatics “often compartmentalize their irrationality so that they believe nonsense in some fields while being eminently rational in others.” For example, the Nazis believed a pseudoscientific racial theory to exterminate millions but “when it came time to design gas chambers and prepare timetables for the Auschwitz trains, Nazi rationality emerged from its hiding place intact.”

Or consider how

the Scientific Revolution began in the most fanatical culture in the world. Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had one of the highest concentrations of religious extremists in history, and the lowest level of tolerance … The luminaries of the Scientific Revolution lived in a society that expelled Jews and Muslims, burned heretics wholesale, saw a witch in every cat-loving elderly lady and started a new religious war every full moon.

Hariri argues that this

ability to compartmentalize rationality probably has a lot to do with the structure of our brain. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different modes of thinking. Humans can subconsciously deactivate and reactivate those parts of the brain that are crucial for skeptical thinking. Thus Adolf Eichmann could have shut down his prefrontal cortex while listening to Hitler give an impassioned speech, and then reboot it while poring over the Auschwitz train schedule.

[Consider scientists in their lab who abhor supernatural explanations but attend church on the weekends. (Although there are far fewer such people than we often imagine.)]

Hariri also notes that though “we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history.” Thus the choice that is often made between truth or social harmony. Should those in power unite people with some fiction or tell the truth at the cost of societal unity?” His conclusion? “Socrates chose the truth and was executed. The most powerful scholarly establishments in history — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.”

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Brief reflections – I’m not sure of this supposed connection between fiction and social cohesion. Science is an enterprise based on truth and is a cooperative venture. I’m just not sure that fictional stories—about Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mohammed, alien abductions, faked moon landings, flat earth theories, etc.—are necessarily better uniters than truthful ones. There is no doubt though that fictional and irrational stories unite people as ridiculous religious and political stories attest.

I also think the purpose of the lies told by religious and political leaders is usually the more sinister one. Power. Here I think Orwell said it best:

“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

Analysis W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or “Stop all the clocks”


I was recently reminded of this W. H. Auden poem. Here it is followed by a brief analysis.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Little analysis is needed here. The first two stanzas describe the author’s mourning of a friend or lover. He doesn’t want to be disturbed by the world around him and his personal grief dwarfs the concerns of the world. By the third stanza, it becomes clear that he has lost a lover, someone who meant everything to him. The final stanza introduces a number of tropes about romantic love—sun, moon, stars, ocean—and rejects them all. They are powerless in the face of his devastating loss. A short but powerful poem. 

In the end, though, I reject its main message. None of us are this important and we must remind ourselves daily that we and our loved ones are mortal. Still, our cares and concerns may yet endure in others who will follow us.

The Myth of the Self-Made Man or Woman

A recent post suggested that while we are individually insignificant we may be significant nonetheless by being a part of something larger than ourselves. This led me to consider how dependent we are at all times on others. In this spirit, I say remember that … 

We were all once helpless infants who survived only because of the care and concern of the adults around us.

We didn’t educate ourselves. We were taught by teachers, who used books others had written, in schools someone else had built.

We don’t drive to work alone. We drive on roads that someone else built, in vehicles others constructed, over bridges engineers designed.

We don’t stay healthy alone. We rely on caregivers and pharmaceuticals and hospitals and medical research past and present. 

We eat food others grow, wear clothes others produce, live in shelter others construct.

And we breathe the oxygen that trees provide, we drink the earth’s water (after it has been filtered by others) and feel our suns warmth. With any of them, we couldn’t survive at all. 

Remember that all of our wealth comes originally and continually from the sun’s energy that plants convert into the food that fuels our bodies and their brains. 

Never believe the myth of the self-made man.

Professional Ethicists Rarely Oppose Abortion

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2016, in Church and State and in Critical Perspectives on Abortion (Analyzing the Issues), Anne C. Cunningham, ed., Enslow Publishing 2017.)

Abortion continues to make political news, but a question rarely asked by politicians or other interlocutors is: what do professional ethicists think about abortion? If ethicists have reached a consensus about the morality or immorality of abortion, surely their conclusions should be important. And, as a professional ethicist myself, I can tell you that among ethicists it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder. In fact, support for this anti-abortion position, to the extent it exists at all, comes almost exclusively from the small percentage of philosophers who are theists.  And even among theists, opposition to abortion is far from unanimous. Yet few seem to take notice.

To support the claim that the vast majority of ethicists reject the pro-life position, consider the disclaimer that appears in the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the philosophical ethics literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Marquis begins:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received
little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers
affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument.

Marquis concedes that abortion isn’t considered immoral according to most ethicists, but why they not, for the most part, find abortion morally problematic? Perhaps professional ethicists, who are typically non-religious philosophers, find nothing morally objectionable about abortion because they aren’t religious. In other words, if they were devout they would recognize abortion as a moral abomination. But we could easily turn this around. Perhaps religiously oriented ethicists oppose abortion because they are religious. In other words, if there were not devout, they would see that abortion isn’t morally problematic. So both religious and secular ethicists could claim that the other side prejudges the case.

However, it is definitely not the case that secular ethicists care less about life or morality than religious ethicists. Consider that virtually all moral philosophers believe that murder, theft, torture, and lying are immoral because cogent arguments underlie such prohibitions. Oftentimes there is little difference between the views of religious and secular ethicists regarding moral issues. Moreover, when there is disagreement among the two groups, perhaps the secular philosophers are ahead of the ethical curve with their general acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and certain forms of euthanasia.

How then do we adjudicate disputes in the moral realm when ethicists, like ordinary people, start with different assumptions? The key to answering this question is to emphasize reason and argument, the hallmarks of doing philosophical ethics. Both secular and religious individuals can participate in rational discourse to resolve their disputes. In fact, natural law moral theory—the dominant ethical theory throughout the history of Christianity—claims that morality is grounded in reason, which implies that what is right is supported by the best rational arguments. Natural law theorists argue that by exercising the human reason their God has given them, they can understand what is right and wrong. Thus secular and religious philosophers work in the same arena, one where moral truths are those supported by the best reasons.

That ethicists emphasize rational discourse may be counter-intuitive in a society dominated by appeals to emotion, prejudice, faith, and group loyalty. But ethicists, secular and religious alike, try to impartially examine the arguments for and against moral propositions in order to determine where the weight of reason lies in the matter. Ethicists may not be perfect umpires, and the truth about moral matters is often difficult to determine, but ethicists are trained to be impartial and thorough when analyzing arguments. Some are better at this than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.

Now you might wonder what makes ethicists better able to adjudicate between good and bad arguments than ordinary people. The answer is that professional ethicists are schooled in logic and the critical thinking skills demanded by those who carefully and conscientiously examine arguments. They are also trained in the more abstract fields of meta-ethics, which considers the meaning of moral terms and concepts, as well as in ethical theory, which considers norms, standards, or criteria for moral conduct. Moreover, they are familiar with the best philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against moral propositions. So they are in a good position to reject arguments that may influence those unfamiliar with favored positions.

All this education doesn’t mean that the majority of ethicists are right, so individuals who disagree with them may choose to follow their own conscience. But if the vast majority of ethicists agree about an ethics issue, we should take notice. It might be that the reasons you give for your fervently held moral beliefs don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Perhaps they can’t be rationally defended as well as those reached after conscientious, informed, and impartial analysis. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your conscience and accept expert opinion, but if you are serious about a moral problem you should want to know the views of those who have thoroughly studied the issue.

At this point, you might object that there are no moral experts because ethics is relative to an individual’s opinions or emotions. You might say that the experts have their opinion and you have yours, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps our view of behaviors in the moral realm are similar to how we view carrots—some people like them and some don’t. This theory is called personal moral relativism. However, not only do most ethicists reject moral relativism, so must pro-lifers. After all, pro-lifers don’t think that the moral prohibition against abortion is relative;  they think it’s absolute. They believe that there are good reasons why abortion is immoral and any rational person should accept those reasons. However, these reasons must be evaluated to see if they are really good ones; to see if they convince other knowledgeable persons. Yet so far, the pro-life arguments haven’t persuaded many ethicists.

Lacking good reasons or armed with weak ones, many will object that their moral beliefs derive from their Gods. To base your ethical views on Gods you would need to know: 1) if Gods exist; 2) if they are good; 3) if they issue good commands; 4) how to find the commands; and 5) the proper version and translation of the holy books issuing commands, or the right interpretation of a revelation of the commands, or the legitimacy of a church authority issuing commands. Needless to say, it is hard, if not impossible, to know any of this.

Consider just the interpretation problem. When does a seemingly straightforward command from a holy book like, “thou shalt not kill,” apply? In self-defense? In war? Always? And to whom does it apply? To non-human animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The brain-dead? Religious commands such as “don’t kill,” “honor thy parents,” and “don’t commit adultery” are ambiguous. Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or if we accept an institution’s authority. Why trust the voices in our heads, or institutional authorities?

For the sake of argument though, let’s assume: that there are Gods; that you know the true one; that your God issues good commands; that you have access to those commands because you have found the right book or church, or had the right vision, or heard the right voices; and that you interpret and understand the command correctly—even if they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years, or from a long-ago revelation. It is almost impossible that you are correct about all this, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that you are. However, even in this case, most philosophers would argue that you can’t base ethics on your God.

To understand why you can’t base ethics on Gods consider the question: what is the relationship between the Gods and their commands? A classic formulation of this relationship is called the divine-command theory. According to divine command theory, things are right or wrong simply because the Gods command or forbid them. There is nothing more to morality than this. It’s like a parent who says to a child: it’s right because I say so. To see how this formulation of the relationship fails, consider a famous philosophical conundrum: “Are things right because the Gods command them, or do the Gods command them because they are right?”

If things are right simply because the Gods command them, then those commands are arbitrary. In that case, the Gods could have made their commandments backward! If divine fiat is enough to make something right, then the Gods could have commanded us to kill, lie, cheat, steal and commit adultery, and those behaviors would then be moral. But the Gods can’t make something right if it’s wrong. The Gods can’t make torturing children morally acceptable simply by divine decree, and that is the main reason why most Christian theologians reject divine command theory.

On the other hand, if the Gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for the God’s commands. On this view, the Gods, in their infinite wisdom and benevolence, command things because they see certain commands as good for us. But if this is the case, then there is some standard, norm or criteria by which good or bad are measured which is independent of the Gods. Thus all us, religious and secular alike, should be looking for the reasons that certain behaviors should be condemned or praised. Even the thoughtful believer should engage in philosophical ethics.

So either the Gods commands are without reason and therefore arbitrary, or they are rational according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral and that reason, not the Gods’ authority, is what makes something right or wrong. The same is true for a supposedly authoritative book. Something isn’t wrong simply because a book says so. There must be a reason that something is right or wrong, and if there isn’t, then the book has no moral authority on the matter.

At this point, the believer might object that the Gods have reasons for their commands, but we can’t know them. Yet if the ways of the Gods are really mysterious to us, what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything about the Gods or their commands, then why follow those commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the priest or preacher? If it’s all a mystery, we should remain silent or become mystics.

In response, the religious may say that, even though they don’t know the reason for their God’s commands, they must oppose abortion because of the inerrancy of their sacred scriptures or church tradition. They might say that since the Bible and their church oppose abortion, that’s good enough for them, despite what moral philosophers say. But in fact, neither church authority nor Christian scripture unequivocally opposes abortion.

As for scriptures, they don’t generally offer specific moral guidance. Moreover, most ancient scriptures survived as oral traditions before being written down; they have been translated multiple times; they are open to multiple interpretations; and they don’t discuss many contemporary moral issues. Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament, the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. It is true that the Catholic Church has held for centuries that activities like contraception and abortion are immoral. Yet, while most pro-lifers don’t consider those distributing birth control to be murderers, the Catholic Church and others do take the extreme view that abortion is murder. Where does such a strong condemnation come from? The history of the Catholic view isn’t clear on the issue, but in the 13th century, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. Gradually, other Christian theologians argued that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. But, given what we now know about fetal development today, if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a month or two after conception. (Note also that there really is no moment of conception.)

Thus the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either scripture or church tradition. Instead what happens is that people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, American Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them. Having done this the vast majority of ethicists have concluded that abortion isn’t generally morally problematic.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. Now if rational argumentation supported the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense, and capital punishment claim.)

But for now, the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief which isn’t grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control.

As for many (if not most) politicians, their public opposition is hypocritical and self-interested. Generally, they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they feign concern by throwing red meat to their constituencies. They use the issue as a ploy to garner support from the unsuspecting. These politicians may be pro-birth, but they aren’t generally pro-life, as evidenced by their opposition to policies that would support the things that children need most after birth like education, health-care, and economic opportunities.

But what politicians and many ordinary people clearly don’t care about is whether their fanatical anti-abortion position is based on rational argumentation. And, according to most ethicists who have carefully examined the problem, it does not.