With the recent controversy over whether Humanism should be taught in UK RE classes, this belief system is getting more attention than it’s ever done. We thought we’d help out the British Humanist Association with their policy of promoting critical thought around Humanism by publishing a series of posts examining whether Humanism makes any sense at all. For this instalment, our editor asked writer Tahir Nasser to jazz up the article’s original draft of which was a bit too concise.
He really took the feedback to heart.
~Humanism & its Discontents: Part 4~
There is a weapon in the arsenal of atheists believed by some advocates of piffle to be so powerful and holy that only the anointed priests of the holy order of balderdash, also known as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, can deploy it without all matter in the universe collapsing in on itself during a cosmic game of Flapdoodle. Dr. Stephen Hall summarises it thus:
Are things morally right/wrong, good/bad because God says so, or does God say that they are right/wrong, good/bad because God recognises that they are? If the first option is true, then that means that right/wrong are arbitrary. If the latter is true, then we don’t need God to know what is right/wrong, as we can recognize it just as God does. [Hall.S; Humanism, A Very Short Introduction, p.74]
Taking torture as an example, Dr. Stephen Hall, advocate of Humanism continues:
If the theist says things are morally right or wrong only because God says so, then morality, it turns out, is still arbitrary and relative. Prior to God’s issuing any commands, there is no right or wrong, and thus whatever commands he issues must be morally arbitrary… In response, some theists insist that, as God is himself morally good, he wouldn’t command us to torture innocent people… Had God said torturing the innocent was right, then it would have been. (In that case) God does not make torturing the innocent wrong by virtue of issuing his commands. Such torture would be wrong whatever God commanded. God’s commands are issued, as it were, for informational purposes only… The theist is now acknowledging that torturing the innocent is wrong anyway – it’s objectively wrong – whether or not there exists a God who issues commands. But then atheists and agnostics are free to help themselves to this same objective moral yardstick.
Is this not a veritable victory for atheism? Is this anything less than a splendid scimitar to the jugular of the Divine? A coup d’etat so precipitous and dashing that it left you gob-smacked?
Or, maybe it’s just a short-sighted, sanguine argument. Gibberish. Poppycock. Hogwash and claptrapping barney, as my butler (in one of the multiverses) would call it.
The Qur’an answers Euthyphro’s dilemma in a very simple, understandable way:
And by the soul and its perfection —And He revealed to it what is wrong for it and what is right for it —He indeed truly prospers who purifies it, And he who corrupts it is ruined.
In these verses, God sets out what is ‘right’ as what will lead to the attainment of our purpose in life, namely, spiritual purification and what is ‘wrong’ as the opposite. But what is “spiritual purification”? A bit wishy-washy, is it? Not at all. The Qur’an clarifies:
Verily, he truly prospers who purifies himself, And remembers the name of his Lord and offers Prayers. [Qur’an 87:15-16]
Fulfilling the purpose of our life is how the Qur’an determines what is ‘right’, and spiritual purification is the process of deepening and promoting a relationship with our Creator through remembrance of God’s attributes and communication with Him in prayer. Thus, God’s determination of right and wrong is not arbitrary but is related to the objective of our creation. Moreover, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not independent of God, as the argument states, for what is ‘right’ is what will improve our relationship with God. This is a matter dependent on God’s nature for the more we imitate God’s attributes as set out by His revelation and also by the conscience He has provided us, the more we are purified through nearness to Him. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ do not, therefore, exist outside of God either. Thus, the premise of Euthyphro’s dilemma that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are “one of two things,” is flawed. What leads to God is what is related to His Nature and constitutes what is ‘right’, while what leads away from God is ‘wrong’ as it is contrary to His Nature.
The nature of our conscience, according to the Qur’an, testifies to the character and Nature of God. The psychology of humans, in its unadulterated form, is a torch-bearer and a reminder of the Nature of God:
So set thy face to the service of religion as one devoted to God. And follow the nature made by Allah — the nature in which He has created mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah. That is the right religion. But most men know not. [Qur’an 30:31]
The right religion, God tells us, is the teaching in which the nature of mankind is kept pure and unadulterated, upon the pattern of God’s Nature. This can also be seen by the fact that God is never described in the Qur’an as “good”, termed “Ihsan” in Arabic. Ihsan or “goodness” is only a characteristic of humans. Why? Simply put, if God was described as “good” then Euthyphro’s dilemma would be valid, as “goodness” could then be said to exist outside of God. Instead, it is goodness that is defined by God’s nature: goodness is God – not the other way around. This can be appreciated by the fact that the opening verses of the Qur’an describe God as the one in whom all praiseworthy qualities originate and find their authorship:
All Praise belongs to and returns to Allah, Creator, Developer and Sustainer of all the worlds [Qur’an 1:2].
All praise returning to God means that anything you see, which you deem praiseworthy, is in fact, merely a reflection of God’s attributes. The Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, echoed this when he described Ihsan or “goodness” in the following manner:
Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you do not achieve this state of devotion, then know at least that Allah sees you. [Sahih Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 300]
Goodness is therefore to be able to “see God” rather than “seeing goodness”. To see God means to know God’s attributes, to love those attributes and to be motivated to imitate those attributes. Such worship does not consist of formulaic prostrating and bowing, but consists of living one’s entire life on the pattern of such praiseworthy qualities. Those who cannot partake of such a high degree of nearness to God, such as to have God’s attributes before the mind’s eye at every moment, can partake of it by remembering that God is aware of them and that they will be held to account for any acts contrary to His nature, also known as “evil deeds”.
Thus, the higher state of “goodness” or Ihsan, is to spontaneously follow God out of love for His attributes, as reflected in one’s own pure conscience. Such a condition is one of total love and obedience and constitutes the active doing of deeds that please God – known as “good deeds”. The lower level is to merely abstain from deeds that run contrary to God’s nature and pleasure, through being aware of one’s accountability to God. Thus, the former consist of positive virtues – the active doing of good, while the latter consists of negative virtues – abstention from evil.
The above phrase of the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, is both simple and remarkable insofar as he captures with such brevity, the entire panoply of human goodness, while simultaneously drawing attention to the roots of those actions: knowledge and adoration of God’s attributes as the motivator of good deeds; and accountability to God as the means of restraint from evil. In tying goodness or Ihsan to God’s essential nature, he cuts to the heart of Euthyphro’s dilemma, exposing the atheist argument for the bunkum it really is.