Home » Library » Modern Library » God and Moral Autonomy

God and Moral Autonomy

God and Moral Autonomy*

James Rachels

Kneeling down or grovelling on the ground, even to express your reverence for heavenly things, is contrary to human dignity.

— Kant

God, if he exists, is worthy of worship. Any being who is not worthy of worship cannot be God, just as any being who is not omnipotent or perfectly good cannot be God.[1] This is reflected in the attitudes of religious believers who recognize that whatever else God may be, he is a being before whom we should bow down. Moreover, he is unique in this; to worship anyone or anything else is blasphemy But can such a being exist? In what follows I will present an argument against the existence of God that is based on the conception of God as a fitting object of worship. The argument is that God cannot exist, because there could not be a being toward whom we should adopt such an attitude.


The concept of worship has received surprisingly little attention from philosophers of religion. When it has been treated, the usual approach is by way of referring to God’s awesomeness or mysteriousness: to worship is to “bow down in silent awe” when confronted with a being that is “terrifyingly mysterious.”[2] But neither of these notions is of much help in understanding worship. Awe is certainly not the same thing as worship; one can be awed by a performance of King Lear, or by witnessing an eclipse of the sun or an earthquake, or by meeting one’s favorite film star, without worshiping any of these things. And a great many things are both terrifying and mysterious that we have not the slightest inclination to worship–the Black Death probably fits that description for many people. So we need an account of worship that does not rely on such notions as awesomeness and mysteriousness.

Consider McBlank, who worked against America’s entry into the Second World War, refused induction into the army, and went to jail. He was active in the “ban the bomb” movements of the 1950s; he made speeches, wrote pamphlets, led demonstrations, and went back to jail. He opposed the war in Vietnam; and in old age he angrily denounced the short-lived Gulf War. In all of this McBlank acted out of principle. He thinks that all war is evil and that no war is ever justified.

We might note three features of McBlank’s pacifist commitment. (1) He recognizes that certain facts are the case. History is full of wars; war causes the massive destruction of life and property; in war people suffer on a scale hardly matched in any other way; the large nations now have weapons that, if used, could virtually wipe out the human race; and so on. These are just facts that any normally informed person will admit without argument. (2) But of course they are not merely facts that people recognize to be the case in some indifferent manner. They are facts that have special importance to human beings. They form an ominous and threatening backdrop to people’s lives–even though for most people they are a backdrop only. But not so for McBlank. He sees the accumulation of these facts as having radical implications for his conduct; he behaves in a very different way from the way he would behave were it not for these facts. His whole style of life is different; his conduct is altered, not just in its details, but in its pattern. (3) Not only is his overt behavior affected; so are his ways of thinking about the world and his place in it. His self-image is different. He sees himself as a member of a race with an insane history of self-destruction, and his self-image becomes that of an active opponent of the forces that lead to this self-destruction. He is an opponent of militarism just as he is a father or a musician. When the existentialists said that we “create ourselves” by our choices, they may have had something like this in mind.

The worshiper has a set of beliefs about God that function in the same way as McBlank’s beliefs about war. First, the worshiper believes that certain sorts of things are the case: for example, that the world was created by an all-powerful, all-wise being who knows our every thought and action; that this being cares for us and regards us as his children; that we are made by him in order to return his love and live in accordance with his laws, and that if we do not live in a way pleasing to him, we may be punished. (I use these beliefs as my example. But I do not mean that these particular beliefs are accepted, in just this form, by all religious people. They are, however, the sorts of beliefs that are required for the business of worshiping God to make sense.)

Second, like the facts about warfare, these are not facts that one notes with an air of indifference. They have important implications for one’s conduct. An effort must be made to discover God’s will both for people generally and for oneself in particular; and to this end, the believer consults the church authorities and the theologians, reads the scripture, and prays. The degree to which this will alter his behavior will depend, of course, on exactly what he decides God would have him do and on the extent to which his behavior would have followed the prescribed pattern in any case.

Finally, the believer’s recognition of these facts will influence his self-image and his way of thinking about the world and his place in it. The world will be regarded as having been made for the fulfillment of divine purposes; the hardships that befall men will be regarded either as “tests” in some sense or as punishments for sin; and most important, the believer will think of himself as a child of God and of his conduct as reflecting either honor or dishonor upon his Heavenly Father.

Wittgenstein’s View

What will be most controversial in what I have said so far (to some philosophers, though perhaps not to most religious believers) is the treatment of claims such as “God regards us as his children” as in some sense factual. Wittgenstein is reported to have thought this a misunderstanding of religious belief, and others have followed him in this.[3] Religious utterances, it is said, do not report putative facts. Instead, we should understand such utterances as revealing the speaker’s form of life. To have a form of life is to accept a language game; the religious believer accepts a language game in which there is talk of God, Creation, Heaven and Hell, a Last Judgment, and so forth, which the skeptic does not accept. Such language games can be understood only in their own terms; we must not try to assimilate them to other sorts of games. To see how this particular game works, we need only to examine the way the language of religion is used by actual believers; in its proper habitat the language game will be “in order” as it stands. We find that the religious believer uses such utterances for a number of purposes–for example, to express reasons for action, to show the significance that she attaches to various things, to express her attitudes, and so on–but not to state facts in the ordinary sense. So when the believer makes a typically religious assertion and the nonbeliever denies the same, they are not contradicting one another; rather, the nonbeliever is simply refusing to play the believer’s (very serious) game. Wittgenstein (as recorded by his pupils) said:

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: ‘not at all, or not always.’

Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says ‘No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you.’

If some said: Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?’ I’d say: ‘No.” Do you contradict the man?’ I’d say: ‘No.'[4]

Wittgenstein goes on to say that the difference between the believer and the skeptic is not that one holds something to be true that the other thinks false but that the believer takes certain things as “guidance for life” that the skeptic does not–for example, that there will be a Last Judgment. He illustrates this by reference to a person who “thinks of retribution” when he plans his conduct or assesses his condition:

Suppose you had two people, and one of them, when he had to decide which course to take, thought of retribution, and the other did not. One person might, for instance, be inclined to take everything that happened to him as a reward or punishment, and another person doesn’t think of this at all.

If he is ill, he may think: ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ This is one way of thinking of retribution. Another way is, he thinks in a general way whenever he is ashamed of himself: ‘This will be punished.’

Take two people, one of whom talks of his behavior and of what happens to him in terms of retribution, the other does not. These people think entirely differently. Yet, so far, you can’t say they believe different things.

Suppose someone is ill and he says: ‘This is punishment,’ and I say: ‘If I’m ill, I don’t think of punishment at all.’ If you say: ‘Do you believe the opposite?’-you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we would normally call believing the opposite.

I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures.[5]

But it is not at all clear that this account is true to the intentions of those who engage in religious discourse. If a believer (at least, the great majority of those whom I have known or read about) says that there will be a Last Judgment and a skeptic says that there will not, the believer certainly will think that he has been contradicted. Of course, the skeptic might not think of denying such a thing except for the fact that the believer asserts it; and in this trivial sense, the skeptic might “think differently”–but that is beside the point. Moreover, former believers who become skeptics frequently do so because they come to believe that religious assertions are false; then they consider themselves to be denying exactly what they previously asserted.

Moreover, a belief does not lose its ordinary factual import simply because it occupies a central place in one’s way of life. McBlank takes the facts about war as guidance for life in a perfectly straightforward sense; but they remain facts. I take it that just as the man in Wittgenstein’s example thinks of retribution often, McBlank thinks of war often. So, we do not need to give religious utterances any peculiar interpretation in order to explain their importance for one’s way of life.

Finally, we do not need a view of religious belief that is deep and difficult. If the impact of religious belief on conduct and thinking can be explained by appeal to nothing more mysterious than putative facts and their impact on conduct and thinking, then the need for a more obscure theory is obviated. And if people believe that, as a matter of fact, their actions are subject to review by a just God who will mete out rewards and punishments on a day of final reckoning, that will explain very nicely why they think of retribution when they reflect on their conduct.

The Point of the Ritual

Worship is something that is done; but it is not clear just what is done when one worships. Other actions, such as throwing a ball or insulting one’s neighbor, seem transparent enough; but not so with worship. When we celebrate Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, what are we doing (apart from eating a wafer and drinking wine)? Or when we sing hymns in a Protestant church, what are we doing (other than merely singing songs)? What is it that makes these acts of worship? One obvious point is that these actions, and others like them, are ritualistic in character; so before we can make any progress in understanding worship, perhaps it will help to ask about the nature of ritual.

First we need to distinguish the ceremonial form of a ritual from what is supposed to be accomplished by it. Consider, for example, the ritual of investiture for an English prince. The prince kneels; the queen (or king) places a crown on his head; and he takes an oath: “I do become your liege man of life and limb and of earthly worship, and faith and trust I will bear unto thee to live and die against all manner of folks.” By this ceremony the prince is elevated to his new station, and by this oath he acknowledges the commitments that, as prince, he will owe the queen. In one sense, the ceremonial form of the ritual is unimportant; it is possible that some other procedure might have been laid down, without the point of the ritual being affected in any way. Rather than placing a crown on his head, the queen might break an egg into his palm (that could symbolize all sorts of things). Once this was established as the procedure, it would do as well as the other. It would still be the ritual of investiture, so long as it was understood that by the ceremony a prince is created. The performance of a ritual, then, is in certain respects like the use of language. In speaking, sounds are uttered, and, thanks to the conventions of the language, something is said, or affirmed, or done; and in a ritual performance, a ceremony is enacted, and, thanks to the conventions associated with the ceremony, something is done, or affirmed, or celebrated.

How are we to explain the point of the ritual of investiture? We might explain that certain parts of the ritual symbolize specific things; for example, that the prince’s kneeling before the queen symbolizes his subordination to her (it is not merely to make it easier for her to place the crown on his head). But it is essential that in explaining the point of the ritual as a whole, we include that a prince is being created, that he is henceforth to have certain rights in virtue of having been made a prince, and that he is to have certain duties that he is now acknowledging, among which are complete loyalty and faithfulness to the queen, and so on. If the listener already knows about the complex relations between queens, princes, and subjects, then all we need to say is that a prince is being installed in office; but if he is unfamiliar with this social system, we must tell him a great deal if he is to understand what is going on.

So, once we understand the social system in which there are queens, princes, and subjects, and therefore understand the role assigned to each within that system, we can sum up what is happening in the ritual of investiture in this way: someone is being made a prince, and he is accepting that role with all that it involves. Similar explanations could be given for other rituals, such as the marriage ceremony: two people are being made husband and wife, and they are accepting those roles with all that they involve.

The question to be asked about the ritual of worship is what analogous explanation can be given of it. The ceremonial form of the ritual may vary according to the customs of the religious community; it may involve singing, drinking wine, counting beads, sitting with a solemn expression on one’s face, dancing, making a sacrifice, or what have you. But what is the point of it?

As we have already observed, the worshiper thinks of himself as inhabiting a world created by an infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, perfectly good God; and it is a world in which he, along with other people, occupies a special place in virtue of God’s intentions. This gives him a certain role to play: the role of a “child of God.” In worshiping God, one is acknowledging and accepting this role, and that is the point of the ritual of worship. just as the ritual of investiture derives its significance from its place within the social system of queens, princes, and subjects, the ritual of worship gets its significance from an assumed system of relationships between God and human beings. In the ceremony of investiture, the prince assumes a role with respect to the queen and the citizenry. In marriage, two people assume roles with respect to one another. And in worship, a person accepts and affirms his role with respect to God.

Worship presumes the superior status of the one worshiped. This is reflected in the logical point that there can be no such things as mutual or reciprocal worship, unless one or the other of the parties is mistaken as to his own status. We can very well comprehend people loving one another or respecting one another, but not (unless they are misguided) worshiping one another. This is because the worshiper necessarily assumes his own inferiority; and since inferiority is an asymmetrical relation, so is worship. (The nature of the “superiority” and “inferiority” involved here is of course problematic; but in the account I am presenting, it may be understood on the model of superior and inferior positions within a social system.) This is also why humility is necessary on the part of the worshiper. The role to which he commits himself is that of the humble servant, “not worthy to touch the hem of his garment.” Compared to God’s gloriousness, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”[6] So in committing oneself to this role, one is acknowledging God’s greatness and one’s own relative worthlessness. This humble attitude is not a mere embellishment of the ritual: on the contrary, worship, unlike love or respect, requires humility. Pride is a sin, and pride before God is incompatible with worshiping him.

The function of worship as “glorifying” or “praising” God, which is often taken to be primary, may be regarded as derivative from the more fundamental nature of worship as commitment to the role of God’s child. “Praising” God is giving him the honor and respect due to one in his position of eminence, just as one shows respect and honor in giving fealty to a king.

In short, the worshiper is in this position: He believes that there is a being, God, who is the perfectly good, perfectly powerful, perfectly wise Creator of the universe; and he views himself as the child of God, made for God’s purposes and responsible to God for his conduct. And the ritual of worship, which may have any number of ceremonial forms according to the customs of the religious community, has as its point the acceptance of, and commitment to, this role as God’s child, with all that this involves. If this account is accepted, then there is no mystery as to the relation between the act of worship and the worshiper’s other activity. Worship will be regarded not as an isolated act taking place on Sunday morning, with no necessary connection to one’s behavior the rest of the week, but as a ritualistic expression of, and commitment to, a role that dominates one’s whole way of life.[7]

Acting Consistently with One’s Role as God’s Child

An important feature of roles is that they can be violated: we can act and think consistently with a role, or we can act and think inconsistently with it. The prince can, for example, act inconsistently with his role as prince by giving greater importance to his own interests and welfare than to the queen’s; in this case, he is no longer her liege man. And a father who does not attend to the welfare of his children is not acting consistently with his role as a father, and so on. What would count as violating the role to which one is pledged in virtue of worshiping God?

In Genesis two familiar stories, both concerning Abraham, are relevant. The first is the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac. We are told that Abraham was “tempted” by God, who commanded him to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham obeyed–he prepared an altar, bound Isaac to it, and was about to kill him until God intervened at the last moment, saying, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). So Abraham passed the test. But how could he have failed? What was his temptation? Obviously, his temptation was to disobey God; God had ordered him to do some thing contrary both to his wishes and to his sense of what would other wise have been right. He could have defied God, but he did not–he subordinated himself, his own desires and judgments, to God’s command, even when the temptation to do otherwise was strongest.

It is interesting that Abraham’s record in this respect was not perfect. We also have the story of him bargaining with God over the conditions for saving Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. God had said that he would destroy those cities because they were so wicked; but Abraham gets God to agree that if fifty righteous men can be found there, the cities will be spared. Then he persuades God to lower the number to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. Here we have a different Abraham, not servile and obedient, but willing to challenge God and bargain with him. However, even as he bargains with God, Abraham realizes that there is something radically inappropriate about it: he says, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes…. Oh let not the Lord be angry” (Gen. 18:27, 30).

The fact is that Abraham could not, consistent with his role as God’s subject, set his own judgment and will against God’s. The author of Genesis was certainly right about this. We cannot recognize any being as God and at the same time set ourselves against him. The point is not merely that it would be imprudent to defy God, since we certainly can’t get away with it. Rather, there is a stronger, logical point involved–namely, that if we recognize any being as God, then we are committed, in virtue of that recognition, to obeying him.

To see why this is so, we must first notice that “God” is not a proper name like “Richard Nixon” but a title like “president of the United States” or “king.”[8] Thus, “Jehovah is God” is a nontautological statement in which the title “God” is assigned to Jehovah, a particular being, just as “Richard Nixon is president of the United States” assigns the title “president of the United States” to a particular man. This permits us to understand how statements like “God is perfectly wise” can be logical truths, which is problematic if “God” is regarded as a proper name. Although it is not a logical truth that any particular being is perfectly wise, it nevertheless is a logical truth that if any being is God (that is, if any being properly holds that title), then that being is perfectly wise. This is exactly analogous to saying that although it is not a logical truth that Richard Nixon has the authority to veto congressional legislation, nevertheless it is a logical truth that if Richard Nixon is president of the United States, then he has that authority.

To bear the title “God,” then, a being must have certain qualifications: he must be all-powerful and perfectly good in addition to being perfectly wise. And in the same vein, to apply the title “God” to a being is to recognize him as one to be obeyed. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of “king”; to recognize anyone as king is to acknowledge that he occupies a place of authority and has a claim on one’s allegiance as his subject. And to recognize any being as God is to acknowledge that he has unlimited authority and an unlimited claim on one’s allegiance. Thus, we might regard Abraham’s reluctance to defy Jehovah as grounded not only in his fear of Jehovah’s wrath but as a logical consequence of his acceptance of Jehovah as God. Albert Camus was right to think that “from the moment that man submits God to moral judgment, he kills Him his own heart.”[9] What a man can “kill” by defying or even questioning God is not the being that (supposedly) is God but his own conception of that being as God. That God is not to be judged, challenged, defied, or disobeyed is at bottom a truth of logic. To do any of these things is incompatible with taking him as one to be worshiped.

As a sidelight, this suggestion might also provide some help with the old problem of how we could, even in principle, verify God’s existence. Skeptics have argued that even though we might be able to confirm the existence of an all-powerful cosmic superbeing, we still wouldn’t know what it means to verify that this being is divine. And this, it is said, casts doubt on whether the notion of divinity and related notions such as sacred,” “holy,” and “God” are intelligible.[10] Perhaps this is because in designating a being as God, we are not only describing him as having certain properties (such as omnipotence), but we are also ascribing to him a certain place in our devotions and taking him as one to be obeyed, worshiped, and praised. If this is part of the logic of “God,” we shouldn’t be surprised if God’s existence, insofar as that includes the existence of divinity, is not empirically confirmable. But once the reason for this is understood, it no longer seems such a serious matter.

The Moral Autonomy Argument

So the idea that any being could be worthy of worship is much more problematic than we might have at first imagined. In saying that a being is worthy of worship, we would be recognizing him as having an unqualified claim on our obedience. The question, then, is whether there could be such an unqualified claim. It should be noted that the description of a being as all-powerful, all-wise, and so on would not automatically settle the issue; for even while admitting the existence of such an awesome being, we might still question whether we should recognize him as having an unlimited claim on our obedience.

There is a long tradition in moral philosophy, from Plato to Kant, according to which such a recognition could never be made by a moral agent. According to this tradition, to be a moral agent is to be autonomous, or self-directed. Unlike the precepts of law or social custom, moral precepts are imposed by the agent upon himself, and the penalty for their violation is, in Kant’s words, “self-contempt and inner abhorrence.”[11] The virtuous person is therefore identified with the person of integrity, the person who acts according to precepts that she can, on reflection, conscientiously approve in her own heart.

On this view, to deliver oneself over to a moral authority for directions about what to do is simply incompatible with being a moral agent. To say “I will follow so-and-so’s directions no matter what they are and no matter what my own conscience would otherwise direct me to do” is to opt out of moral thinking altogether; it is to abandon one’s role as a moral agent. And it does not matter whether “so-and-so” is the law, the customs of one’s society, or Jehovah. This does not, of course, preclude one from seeking advice on moral matters and even on occasion following that advice blindly, trusting in the good judgment, of the adviser. But this is justified by the details of the particular case–for example, that you cannot form any reasonable judgment of your own because of ignorance or inexperience or lack of time. What is precluded is that a person should, while in possession of his wits, adopt this style of decision making (or perhaps we should say this style of abdicating decision making) as a general strategy of living, or abandon his own best judgment when he can form a judgment of which he is reasonably confident.

We have, then, a conflict between the role of worshiper, which by its very nature commits one to total subservience to God, and the role of moral agent, which necessarily involves autonomous decision making. The role of worshiper takes precedence over every other role the worshiper has; when there is any conflict, the worshiper’s commitment to God has priority over everything. But the first commitment of a moral agent is to do what in his own heart he thinks is right. Thus the following argument might be constructed:

1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.

2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.

3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.

Objections and Replies

The concept of moral agency underlying this argument is controversial, and although I think it is sound, I cannot give it here the detailed treatment that it requires. Instead, I will conclude by considering some of the most obvious objections to the argument.

(1) What if God lets us go our own way and issues no commands other than that we should live according to our own consciences? In that case there would be no incompatibility between our commitment to God and our commitments as moral agents, since God would leave us free to direct our own lives. The fact that this supposition is contrary to major religious traditions (such as the Christian tradition) doesn’t matter, since these traditions could be mistaken. The answer is that this is a mere contingency, and that even if God did not require obedience to detailed commands, the worshiper would still be committed to the abandonment of his role as a moral agent if God required it.

(2) God is perfectly good; it follows that he would never require us to do anything except what is right. Therefore, in obeying God, we would only be doing what we should do in any case. So there is no incompatibility between obeying him and carrying out our moral responsibilities. Our responsibility as moral agents is to do right, and God’s commands are right, so that’s that. This objection rests on a misunderstanding of the idea that (necessarily) God is perfectly good. This can be intelligibly asserted only because of the principle that no being who is not perfectly good may bear the title “God.” The catch is that we cannot determine whether some being is God without first checking on whether he is perfectly good;[12] and we cannot decide whether he is perfectly good without knowing (among other things) whether his commands to us are right. Thus our own judgment that some actions are right and others wrong is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God. The upshot is that we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God’s command; for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title “God” from the commander.

(3) People are sinful; their very consciences are corrupt and unreliable guides. What is taken for conscientiousness is nothing more than self-aggrandizement and arrogance. Therefore, we cannot trust our own judgment; we must trust God and do what he wills. Only then can we be assured of doing what is right.

This is a view that has always had its advocates among theologians. But this Augustinian view suffers from a fundamental inconsistency. It is said that we cannot know for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, because our judgment is corrupt. But how do we know that our judgment is corrupt? Presumably, in order to know that, we would have to know (a) that some actions are morally required of us, and (b) that our own judgment does not reveal that these actions are required. However, (a) is just the sort of thing that we cannot know, according to this view. Now, it may be suggested that while we cannot know (a) by our own judgment, we can know it as a result of God’s revelation. But even setting aside the practical difficulties of distinguishing genuine from bogus revelation (a generous concessim), there is still this problem: if we learn that God (some being we take to be God) requires us to do a certain action and we conclude on this account that the action is morally right, then we have still made at least one moral judgment of our own, namely, that whatever this being requires is morally right. Therefore, it is impossible to maintain the view that we have moral knowledge and that all of it comes from God’s revelation.

(4) Some philosophers have held that the voice of individual conscience is the voice of God speaking to the individual, whether the individual realizes it or not and whether he is a believer or not. This would resolve the conflict, because in following one’s conscience, one would at the same time be discharging one’s obligation as a worshiper to obey God. However, this maneuver is unsatisfying because if it were taken seriously, it would lead to the conclusion that in speaking to us through our “consciences,” God is merely tricking us, for he is giving us the illusion of self-governance while all the time he is manipulating our thoughts from without. Moreover, in acting from conscience, we are acting under the view that our actions are right and not merely that they are decreed by a higher power. Socrates’ argument in the Euthyphro can be adapted to this point. If in speaking to us through the voice of conscience, God is informing us of what is right, then there is no reason to think that we could not discover this for ourselves–the notion of “God informing us” is eliminable. On the other hand, if God is only giving us arbitrary commands, which cannot be thought of as right independent of his promulgating them, then the whole idea of conscience, as it is normally understood, is a sham.

(5) Finally, it might be objected that the question of whether any being is worthy of worship is different from the question of whether we should worship him. In general, that X is worthy of our doing Y with respect to X does not entail that we should do Y with respect to X. Mrs. Brown, being a fine woman, may be worthy of a marriage proposal, but we ought not to propose to her, since she is already married. Or, Seaman Jones may be worthy of a medal for heroism, but still there could be reasons why we should not award it. Similarly, it may be that there is a being who is worthy of worship and yet we should not worship him since it would interfere with our lives as moral agents. Thus God, who is worthy of worship, may exist; and we should love, respect, and honor him, but not worship him in the full sense of the word. If this is correct, then the Moral Autonomy Argument is fallacious.

But this objection will not work because of a disanalogy between the cases of proposing marriage and awarding the medal, on the one hand, and the case of worship on the other. It may be that Mrs. Brown is worthy of a proposal, yet there are circumstances in which it would be wrong to propose to her. However, these circumstances are contrasted with others in which it would be perfectly all right. The same goes for Seaman Jones’s medal: there are some circumstances in which awarding it would be proper. But in the case of worship–if the foregoing arguments have been sound–there are no circumstances under which anyone should worship God. And if one should never worship, then the concept of a fitting object of worship is empty.

The Moral Autonomy Argument will probably not persuade anyone to abandon belief in God-arguments rarely do–and there are certainly many more points that need to be worked out before it can be known whether this argument is even viable. Perhaps it isn’t. Yet it does raise an issue that is clear enough. Theologians are already accustomed to speaking of theistic belief and commitment as taking the believer “beyond morality.” The question is whether this should not be regarded as a severe embarrassment.


[1] Charles Hartshorne and Nelson Pike have suggested that St. Anselm’s famous definition of God, “that than which none greater can be conceived,” should be understood as meaning “that than which none more worthy of worship can be conceived.” Charles Hartshorne, Anselm’s Discovery (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1966), 25-26; and Nelson Pike, God and Timelessness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 149-60.

[2] These phrases are from John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 13-14.

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett, from notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees, and James Taylor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). See also, for example, Rush Rhees, Without Answers (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), chap. 13.

[4] Wittgenstein, Lectures, 53.

[5] Wittgenstein, Lectures, 54-55.

[6] Isa. 64:6 AV. All biblical citations are to the Authorized (King James) Version.

[7] This account of worship, specified here in terms of what it means to worship God, may easily be adapted to the worship of other beings, such as Satan. The only changes required are (a) that we substitute for beliefs about God analogous beliefs about Satan, and (b) that we understand the ritual of worship as committing the Satan-worshiper to a role as Satan’s servant in the same way that worshiping God commits theists to the role of his servant.

[8] Cf. Nelson Pike, “Omnipotence and God’s Ability to Sin,” American Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1969): 208-9; and C. B. Martin, Religious Belief (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), chap. 4.

[9] Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, 1956), 62.

[10] See Kai Nielsen, “Eschatological Verification,” Canadian Journal of Theology 9(1963).

[11] Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 44.

[12] In one sense, of course, we could never know for sure that such a being is perfectly good, since that would require an examination of all his actions and commands, which is impossible. However, if we observed many good things about him and no evil ones, we would be justified in accepting the hypothesis that he is perfectly good. The hypothesis would be confirmed or disconfirmed by future observations in the usual way.

*Note: This article was originally published in James Rachels, Can Ethics Provide Answers? : And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), pp. 109-123. The article is copyright © 1997 Rowman & Littlefield; it is reprinted electronically on the Secular Web with the written permission of Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

all rights reserved