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Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape (1997)

Michael Martin


One of the more dramatic debating maneuver used by Christian apologists against atheists is to argue that atheists can provide no objective reason for not raping people. This startling claim follows from the apologists' wider claim that atheists can provide no objective moral reasons for anything. In this paper I will examine both claims in context of the debate between atheism and theism.

I will maintain first that the theists' assume without good argument that an atheistic morality must be subjective. Second, I will argue that the theistic position on rape does not escape a special case of the Euthyphro dilemma:[1] Does God disapprove of rape because it is bad or is rape bad because God disapproves of it? On the first interpretation of the dilemma theists can provide objective reasons for not raping, but so can atheists. On the second interpretation, theists can provide no objective reasons for not raping so that if atheists cannot, they are no worse off than theists. To be sure, some theists attempt to escape from the dilemma by appealing to God's character. But I will argue that they do not succeed and in fact beg the question against atheists. Finally, I will maintain that the Biblical view of rape should not be our moral guide: Not only does the Bible seem to condone rape on certain occasions but its attitude toward female victims of rape is insensitive and chauvinistic.

Is Atheistic Morality Necessarily Subjective?

Not all theists claim that atheistic morality is subjective. For example, Richard Swinburne, perhaps the most famous contemporary Christian philosopher, argues that many moral statements are true independent of God's commands. Swinburne says "Genocide and torturing children are wrong and would remain so whatever commands any person issued."[2] Furthermore, he believes that although, if God had issued commands on a topic, these commands are morally relevant to this topic, he assumes that it is possible to objectively settle moral disputes concerning this topic if God did not exist.

However, not all theists hold this position and some maintain that atheistic morality must be subjective. Theists who claim that atheistic morality must be subjective usually assert this without argument. However, to support their case solid arguments must be given. Indeed, theists must refute the following argument before their views on atheistic morality can be taken seriously:

1) In order to show that atheistic morality necessarily is subjective, theists must show that all attempts to ground objective morality on a nontheistic basis fail.
2) But theists have not shown that all attempts to ground objective morality on a nontheistic basis fail.

Hence, theists have not shown that atheistic morality is necessarily subjective.

Theists have their work cut out for them since there have been many attempts to show that morality can have an objective basis that is independent of religion.[3] To my knowledge these attempts have not been refuted.

Now the theist William Lane Craig in his oral debates and written work[4] has used the work of John Mackie, an atheist who advocated a subjective morality, to support his subjectivist interpretation of atheistic morality. Arguing that without a God an objective morality is impossible, Mackie advocated ethical subjectivism.[5]

However, Mackie's arguments are not persuasive and certainly do not represent the views of all atheists. It is significant that, although Craig cites atheists who maintain atheism leads to moral subjectivism, he fails to cite any atheists who maintain that atheism is compatible with objective ethics, let alone refute any of their arguments. Moreover, although he adopts Mackie's position, he does not seem to be aware of the critical responses to Mackie's arguments.

Mackie gave two arguments for ethical subjectivism.[6] First, he argued that the existence of great disagreements in ethical opinion supports ethical subjectivism. Second, he maintained that to hold the view that morality is objective one would have to suppose that moral properties are so strange that they would not fit into a naturalistic worldview. Both of these arguments are problematic.[7]

Consider the argument from disagreement. Mackie realized that disagreement in science does not undermine our belief in scientific objectivity, but he held that there is a basic difference between science and ethics. Most scientific disputes are resolvable in principle, he believed, whereas many ethical disputes are not. Mackie's position seems to be that ethical disputes would only be resolvable in principle if there was antecedent agreement concerning general moral principles and disagreement was the result of different applications of these principles. Then there would be no real ethical dispute. But Mackie's position is that there are genuine disputes.

However, this argument is unsound. First of all, in order for all disputes to be reconcilable in principle the people engaged in them must be fully informed, fully rational, and have sufficient time for deliberation. In many cases, we have no reason to suppose that these conditions have been met. For example, many moral disputes may be the result of nonculpable ignorance of nonmoral facts, for example, about whether a particular economic policy would increase the standard of living. Second, in science one can imagine cases in which agreement is not even possible in principle because of systematic error. For example, a person P in a factual dispute over some historical occurrence may start off with completely false psychological hypotheses about human nature. In this case one would hardly expect that agreement in principle is possible. Systematic error may also occur in moral disputes thus precluding agreement in principle. Third, even barring systematic error, moral realism does not require that all ethical disputes are reconcilable in principle. There can be moral ties where one position does not have any over-all advantage over another. Moreover, moral realism is compatible with some objective moral considerations being incommensurable with others. In such cases, two moral positions are not tied but incomparable. In addition, Mackie is mistaken to think that agreement in principle must be based on antecedent agreement on general ethical principles. On one well-known model (the coherenist model) of moral agreement, agreement is brought about by mutual adjustment between general moral principles and judgments about particular cases. David Brink puts it in this way:

we make trade-offs among the various levels of generality of beliefs in such a way as to maximize initial commitment, overall consistency, explanatory power and so on. The fact that we disagree about some moral issues at the beginning of the process of adjustment gives no compelling reason to suppose the adjustment will not, in the limit, resolve our disagreement.[8]

Mackie maintains that in order to explain moral disputes, the moral realists must assume that many moral facts are contingent. Necessary moral facts would only be associated with the common moral principles that allegedly underlie disputes. For reasons that are unclear, Mackie supposed that moral realism was committed to necessary moral facts. However, there is no reason to suppose that this is so.

Mackie's argument from strangeness is that since moral realism entails that objective moral facts and properties would have to be so fundamentally different from natural facts and properties for which we have evidence, there is good a posteriori reason to reject them. This is because moral facts would have to be objectively prescriptive. Thus, one can interpret Mackie as maintaining that moral realism is committed to internalism, the a priori thesis that the recognition of moral facts either necessarily motivates or provides reasons for action no matter what the facts are. Let us call the first type of internalism motivational internalism (MI) and the second reason internalism (RI). Externalism denies both MI and RI.

However, one strategy to meet this argument is to argue that internalism is indeed compatible with a nontheistic ethical realism.[9] This strategy is not as plausible as arguing that both MI and RI are incorrect and are not entailed by moral realism.[10] MI is incorrect because whether the recognition of a moral fact is motivational is contingent on what the moral fact is and on the psychological state of the agent. The same is true of RI: whether the recognition of a moral fact provides reasons depends on what the moral fact is and on the psychological state of the agent. However, moral realism is compatible with externalism.[11]

Is Theistic Morality Necessarily Objectivist?

Let us assume for the moment that the Biblical position on rape is clear: God condemns rape. But why? One possibility is that He condemns rape because it is wrong. Why is it wrong? It might be supposed that God has various reasons for thinking rape is wrong: it violates the victim's rights, it traumatizes the victim, it undermines the fabric of society, and so on. All of these are bad making properties. However, if these reasons provide objective grounds for God thinking that rape is wrong, then they provide objective grounds for others as well. Moreover, these reasons would hold even if God did not exist. For example, rape would still traumatize the victim and rape would still undermine the fabric of society even. Thus, on this assumption, In this case, atheists could provide objective ground for condemning rape--the same grounds used by God.

Let us suppose now that rape is wrong because God condemns it. In this case, God has no reasons for His condemnations. His condemnation makes rape wrong and it would not be wrong if God did not condemned it. Indeed, not raping someone would be wrong if God condemned not raping. However, this hardly provides objective grounds for condemning rape: Whether rape is right or wrong would be based on God's arbitrary condemnation. On this interpretation, if atheists can provide no objective grounds for condemning rape, they are no worse off than theists. However, as we have seen, there is no reason to suppose that they cannot provide such grounds.

Theists such as Greg Bahnsen and John Frame suppose that the above dilemma can be avoided by basing morality on the necessary attributes of God's character rather than directly on His condemnation.[12] It may seem that to say that God condemns rape as wrong because His character is necessarily good avoids the dilemma, but this is an illusion. Bahnsen argued that in the Euthyphro Plato set up a "false antithesis":

truth of the matter is that good is not independent of God. Certain behavior is good because God approves of it, and God approves of it because it is the creaturely expression of His holiness -- in other words, it is good. To be good is to be like God, and we can only know what behavior is good if God reveals and approves of it. The important point is that good is what God approves and cannot be ascertained independent of Him. . .[13]

Unfortunately, however, Bahnsen's position is not clear. The quotation suggests both that something is good because God approves of it and that God approves of it because it is good. But these two positions cannot both be maintained at once. Suppose that "X because of Y" means "X is caused by Y". This would mean that when one says that rape is bad because God disapproved of it one means that God caused rape to be bad by disapproving of it. But if one says that God disapproved of rape because it is bad, this would mean that the badness of rape caused God to disapprove of it. But how can what God caused by disapproving of it have caused God to disapprove of it? If "X because of Y" means "Y is the reason for X," a similar problem arises. If the reason for rape being bad is God's disapproval of it, how can it be the case that rape being bad is the reason for God's disapproval of rape?

In any case, appealing to God's character only postpones the problem since the dilemma can be reformulated in terms of His character. Is God's character the way it is because it is good or is God's character good simply because it is God's character? Is there an independent standard of good or does God's character set the standard? If God's character is the way it is because it is good, then there is an independent standard of goodness by which to evaluate God's character. For example, suppose God condemns rape because of His just and merciful character. His character is just and merciful because mercy and justice are good. Since God is necessarily good, God is just and merciful. According to this independent standard of goodness, being merciful and just is precisely what a good character involves. In this case, even if God did not exist, one could say that a merciful and just character is good. Human beings could use this standard to evaluate peoples' character and actions based on this character. They could do this whether or not God exists.

Suppose God's character is good simply because it is God's character. Then if God's character were cruel and unjust, these attributes would be good. In such a case God might well condone rape since this would be in keeping with His character. But could not one reply that God could not be cruel and unjust since by necessity God must be good? It is true that by necessity God must be good. But unless we have some independent standard of goodness then whatever attributes God has would by definition be good: God's character would define what good is. It would seem that if God could not be cruel and unjust, then God's character must necessarily exemplify some independent standard of goodness. Using this standard one could say that cruelty and injustice are not good whether God exists or not.

This attempt to avoid the dilemma by basing objective morality on God's necessary character has another problem. It assumes that there would not be an objective morality without God. However, this seems to beg the question against an objective atheistic ethics. After all, why would the nonexistence of God adversely affect the goodness of mercy, compassion, and justice? Yet, this is precisely what would happen if being part of God's character created the goodness of mercy, compassion and justice. This point can perhaps be made in another way. One could affirm the objective immorality of rape and deny the existence of God with perfect consistency. There is no contradiction in claiming "Rape is objectively evil and God does not exist."[14]

Should the Biblical Position on Rape Be Our Model?

Christians seem to assume that God condemns rape and that this His condemnation can be supported from reading the Bible. In addition, they assume that God condemns rape on the same grounds that rape is condemned in contemporary society. However, the Biblical position is complicated and only supports the common view that rape is wrong because it harms the victim to a very limited extent. To be sure, one can find rape condemned in the Bible. However, one can also find passages where God seems to be tacitly approving of rape and other passages where rape is condemned but without regard for the victim's welfare.

First of all, in some passages God seems to tacitly sanction rape. In the Old Testament Moses encourages his men to use captured virgins for their own sexual pleasure, i.e. to rape them. After urging his men to kill the male captives and female captive who are not virgins he says: "But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves (Num. 31: 18)." God then explicitly rewards Moses by urging him to distribute the spoils. He does not rebuke Moses or his men (Num. 31: 25-27).

Second, when rape is condemned in the Old Testament the woman's rights and her psychological welfare are ignored.[15] For example: "If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father fifty skelels of silver, and she shall be his wife, and he may not put her away all of his days (Deut:22; 28-29)." Here the victim of rape is as treated the property of the father. Since the rapist has despoiled the father's property he must pay a bridal fee. The women apparently has no say in the matter and is forced to marry the person who raped her. Notice also if they are not discovered, no negative judgment is forthcoming. The implicit message seems to be that if you rape an unbetrothed virgin, be sure not to get caught.

In the case of the rape of a betrothed virgin in a city, the Bible says that both the rapist and victim should be stoned to death: the rapist because he violated his neighbor's wife and the victim because she did not cry for help (Deut. 22: 23-25). Again the assumption is that the rapist dispoiled the property of another man and so must pay with this life. Concern for the welfare of the victim does not seem to matter. Moreover, it is assumed that in all cases that a rape victim could cry for help and if she did, she would be heard and rescued. Both of these assumptions are very dubious and sensitive to the contextual aspects of rape.

On the other hand, according to the Bible, the situation is completely different if the rape occurs in "open country." Here the rapist should be killed, not the victim. The reason given is that if a woman cried for help in open country, she would not be heard. Consequently, she could not be blamed for allowing the rape to occur. No mention is made about the psychological harm to victim. No condemnation is made of a rapist in open country, let alone in a city, who does not get caught.

The only place I know in the Bible where any sensitivity is shown to the victim of rape is in the story of David's son Amnon who raped his half sister Tamar and then rejected her. The writer of this story describes her immediate grief in some detail, Her brother Absalom revenged her rape by killing Amnon. As Gerald Larue has described it: "The death of Amnon put the Israelite justice in balance, so to speak, but the pain experienced by the women was not considered worthy of further record."[16]


How then can atheists meet the debating maneuver that atheists can provide no objective reason for not raping people?

First, atheists can argue that it has never been shown that nonreligious ethics is necessarily subjective. Indeed, it can be pointed out that even famous Christian philosophers have denied that atheistic morality is subjective. In particular, Mackie's two arguments against nonreligious objective ethics are unsound.

Second, using the Euthyphro dilemma, on the one hand, they can argue that if theists can provide such reasons, so can they. On the other hand, they can argue that on certain interpretations of Christian ethics, theists cannot provide any objective reasons. If rape is wrong simply because God commands it or simply because rape is bad because it conflicts with God's character and God's character is good simply because it is God's character, the badness of rape is completely arbitrary.

Third, atheists should point out that if theists base the wrongness of rape on Biblical interpretation, they are on shaky grounds. In places the Bible condones rape and where the Bible condemns rape, the reasons for the condemnations are neither adequate nor in keeping with enlightened moral opinion.


[1] This dilemma was first posed in the Platonic dialogue, The Euthyphro.

[2] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 204.

[3] See, for example, Roderick Firth, "Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer", Readings in Ethical Theory, Second Edition (ed.) Wilfrid Sellars and John Hospers (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970), Richard Boyd, "How To Be a Moral Realist," and Peter Railton, "Moral Realism," in Moral Discourse and Practice, ed. S. Darwall, A. Gibbard, and P. Railton, (Oxford University Press, 1997), David O. Brink, Moral Realism and The Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 37-39, 197-203.

[4] See, for example, William L. Craig, "The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations of Morality,"

[5] Craig also cites the position of Michael Ruse, the philosopher of biology, who maintains that modern biology shows that an objective foundations of morality is an illusions. I do not consider Ruse here for three reasons. First, Ruse gives no extended argument for his views. Second, Ruse has not written extensively on ethics. Third, although Ruse is apparently an atheist, he has not given a detailed defense of atheism. Mackie, on the other hand, has done all three.

[6] See J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 36-42.

[7] David O. Brink, "Moral Realism and The Skeptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness," Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 62, 1984, pp. 111-125; David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 37-9. 51-77, 171-82, 197-203.

[8] Brink, p. 204.

[9] See, for example, Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); J. McDowell, "Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?" Proceeding of the Aristotelian Society, 1979, supp. vol. 13-29.

[10] See Brink, Chapter 3.

[11] See Brink, "Moral Realism and The Skeptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness," and Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics.

[12] For example, Greg Bahnsen and John Frame. See Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1977) and John Frame's position in the Martin-Frame Debate (

[13] Bahnsen, p. 284.

[14] Some apologists have argued that there is a contradiction since the existence of God is necessary. However, as I have argue elsewhere (see the Martin-Frame Debate) this reply assumes that a conclusion of a modal version of the Ontological Argument--a highly controversial argument. Furthermore, elsewhere I give many arguments to support the view that, far from God being a logically necessary being, God is a logically impossible being. I show there that the concept of a theistic God is logically incoherent. (See Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Chapter 12).

[15] I am indebted in what follows to Gerald Larue, Sex and the Bible (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983). Chapter 16.

[16] Larue, p. 104.