By S. Richard Bellrock
S. Richard Bellrock has studied, taught, and worked in areas related to psychology and philosophy for 25 years.
Or download the audio file here: Sin Does Not Exist: And Believing That It Does Is Ruining Us
Sin is to morality as Zeus’s thunderbolt is to weather.1 That is, Zeus’s thunderbolts do not exist and therefore contribute nothing to our understanding of weather. Even if someone sincerely believes in the reality of Zeus’s thunderbolt, even if they can explain the phenomenon of lightning by recourse to Zeus, and even if they interpret lightning as a direct experience of Zeus’s will or presence, once an adequate understanding of electrical discharge is obtained, Zeus’s thunderbolt ceases to play a literal role in an informed discussion about lightning—playing, at best, a figurative, metaphorical, or colloquial role.
Zeus’s thunderbolt offers an example of eliminative reduction: when an understanding of a phenomena or theoretical construct is displaced or improved upon by a more accurate understanding, and the construct in question is not just explained, but explained away.2 Examples from the history of science include élan vital (the energizing, organizing, directing life force), phlogiston (a fire-like substance contained in objects that is released upon combustion), and the luminiferous ether (the medium that fills the universe and through which light “waves” are propagated). Once DNA and natural selection, oxidation, and the wave-particle duality of light were understood, then élan vital, phlogiston, and the luminiferous ether were explained right out of existence, because a more adequate understanding led to the realization that they simply are not real.
This article argues that, like Zeus’s thunderbolt, sin does not exist, and contributes nothing to our understanding of morality. Sin will become a casualty of eliminative reduction. Our LDS family and friends are inclined to think otherwise. But the results of the Mormon way of understanding sin are very disturbing.
Though the LDS Bible Dictionary (surprisingly) does not offer a definition of sin, the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says that sin is “[w]illful disobedience to God’s commandments,”3 and that “[t]o commit sin is to willfully disobey God’s commandments or to fail to act righteously despite a knowledge of the truth (see James 4:17).”4 In order to make my case, I will use this traditional definition of sin, which resembles the one provided by St. Augustine of Hippo: “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.”5 In other words, a sin is wrong because the act is in violation of a command of God, is known by the transgressor to be so, and is voluntary.
This concept of sin relies on Divine Command Theory:6 that the only foundation for ethics is God’s command, it being the ultimate and only source/foundation of morality/virtue/the good (1 John 3:40; Romans 7: 12–14). I will argue that even if God is real, and even if God has revealed his will, the moral worth of any given act is not determined by whether or not it is in harmony with divine command. Consequently, divine command theory is false, and sin is not a real thing.
One afternoon while driving a passenger in my taxi, I passed a park that had a playground perhaps 75 yards from the road, and was about a quarter of a mile around the bend from a school. Because the park was just outside the vicinity of the school and the playground was on the other side of the park, the road by the park qualified as neither a playground zone nor a school zone, and consequently the speed limit on the road was not reduced. My customer and I were passing this park shortly after the nearby school had been dismissed, and as there were children playing near the road, I adjusted my speed accordingly. Within a few moments my customer, slightly annoyed, observed that I must be from out of town. When I asked him why, he said that it was because I had slowed down on that road although it was not a playground zone. His implication was that had he been in the driver’s seat, unless legally obligated to, he would not have slowed down while passing the children.
Had I been motivated, I could have asked him, loosely paraphrasing the question Socrates put to Euthyphro,7 “Is it good to slow down for the children because the sign says so, or is the sign put there because it is good to slow down for the children?”
In other words, it is good to slow down near children because the sign requires it? Or is it good to slow down near children, and that was why the sign was put up? This distinction gives us a small but surprisingly useful conceptual lever that can help us do some heavy lifting.
Consider a couple of hypothetical situations related to the speed zone scenario.
First, imagine that you were driving a clear, flat stretch of highway, miles away from town, miles away from any playground or school, when you pass a sign that says that you are entering a reduced-speed school zone. You would likely reflexively slow down even if you didn’t see a school or anything else that might necessitate the reduction, because you might suspect a speed trap.8 What if you looked around and found that there was no school or playground? You might be annoyed that you had slowed down when you did not need to. In what sense did you “not need to” slow down? It is, I suggest, because your intuition is that the rightness of slowing down comes from the value of keeping children safe, not from the value of the sign itself.
Second, imagine that while approaching a schoolyard teeming with children you notice a big sign that says “SCHOOL ZONE: Speed Limit 90 MPH while passing children.” How do you respond? Do you accelerate to 90? Do you think to yourself that it is suddenly acceptable to drive dangerously fast near children because the sign gives you the legal go-ahead? Or do you recognize that accelerating will endanger the children and that the sign is therefore wrong? No doubt the latter.
In other words, the value of the sign is derived from the value of keeping children safe. Thus, the highway sign is not justified in requiring you to slow down since there are no children nearby. Similarly, the sign near the school or playground does not justify an increase in the speed limit.
The answer to the question “Why are there speed reduction signs near schools and playgrounds?” is not, “Because there are signs.” Rather, we explain the authority of the signs by pointing to something prior to them—the safety of children. The sign is not what makes slowing down a good thing. The sign does nothing to determine the value of slowing down and adds nothing to the correctness of slowing down. The safety of the children is first; therefore the sign goes up. Children’s safety is, so to speak, the cause, and the sign indicating the speed reduction is the effect. The safety of the children is prior to the sign designating the speed limit.
Consider another scenario. When I was a child, my mother told me to eat my vegetables. It became a habit, and now that I’m an adult, I eat vegetables regularly. Coincidentally, my Mother continues to tell me that I should eat vegetables.
Does it make sense to ask why my mother insisted that I eat my veggies? Yes, because it is easy to propose a plausible answer. She wanted me to eat them because they provided nutrition for my body.
We can again adapt the query that Socrates put to Euthyphro: Was it good to eat my veggies because my mother told me to? Or did my mother tell me to because eating veggies is good for me? My mother might still insist that I eat vegetables, but, as an adult, I do so because of vegetables’ benefits.
What if, hypothetically, my mother had instituted a rule that required that when tying shoelaces, we had to tie the right shoe before the left? If I asked her why, she might have trouble providing a plausible explanation other than a simple appeal to her authority. As a child, I probably would have obediently followed her rule. But as an adult, I would not be able to find a correspondence with the right-shoe-first rule and an actual good. If the rule does not point to some actual good, it is as arbitrary and absurd as the “school zone” sign located where there is no school.
Our intuitions tell us that the reason or justification for a rule is independent of and prior to the rule itself. For example, a coworker confided in me that he was giving some serious consideration to converting to Islam. As we talked, I became aware that he hadn’t even considered whether Islam’s foundational claims were true. Nor was he awed by its fascinating history, its rich philosophical tradition, or even most of the teachings of Mohamed—in fact he was hardly even aware of these things. Rather, with what might charitably be described as a checkered past, my coworker was attracted to the possibility that Islam’s strict moral codes could keep him on the strait and narrow.
It struck me that, to be able to recognize the rules of Islam as virtuous, my friend had to have already known which acts were virtuous. He had already recognized the wrongness of his past behaviors and the rightness of the behaviors Islam would mandate. It further struck me that since my friend already knew what was virtuous, adding Islamic commandments to his life actually imposed an unnecessary step between his internal moral sensibilities and his behavior.
Why would I call it an unnecessary step? Say you are hungry, and your friend prepares some good food and gives it to you. You are naturally inclined to eat it because you are hungry. But what if your friend says, “Eat it, or I’ll kick you in the shin”? Because you already intend to eat the food (it being the right thing to do for your body), his threat of punishment is superfluous to your decision. Similarly, my friend considering conversion already knew what kind of behavior would be good for him; adopting a religious moral code, with its attendant threats for misbehavior, would have added an unnecessary step.
Many of us have been on the receiving end of conversations where someone tries to convince us that one of their religion’s strongest selling points is its Divine Command Theory of morality. Without that command—with its promises of blessings and threats of punishment—they argue that it is impossible to be moral, and therefore, you should join their religion. But how is it possible for the unbeliever to perceive that those religious dictates are in fact virtuous? The same way my friend did: he already knew what was virtuous. The very fact that that the believer accepts that the unbeliever is capable of recognizing the good in the divine command requires that the believer also concede that the unbeliever already knows the good. If this is the case, it follows that the believer (probably subconsciously) believes it is possible to know the good independent of knowing God’s will.
In other words, rules are valid when they point toward an actual good (children’s safety, a healthy body, etc.). And from what I’ve demonstrated, religious and nonreligious people (on the whole) accept this model. How does this concept repeal the divine command theory? How does it invalidate the concept of sin? To understand that, we need to dive a little deeper into Euthyphro.
While on his way to court regarding a possible trial for charges of impiety, Socrates starts talking with Euthyphro,9 who considers himself an expert on piety. In one of his definitions of virtue, Euthyphro declares, “That which is loved by all the gods is pious, and that which is hated by all the gods is impious.”
To which Socrates famously replies, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” For the monotheistic reader, the question can be updated, without changing the meaning, to: Does God approve of an act because it is virtuous, or is an act virtuous because God says it is?
If it is the former, then the virtuousness of the act is somehow inherent in the act (or the intentions of the actor, or the consequences of the act) and is separate from God’s approval of it. If the latter, virtue is bestowed upon the act by God’s approval of it—the act is not virtuous in and of itself; it obtains its virtue only upon God’s endorsement.
The problem is, both options prove to be quite antithetical to Divine Command Theory, presenting us with what has come to be called the Euthyphro Dilemma.
The core of Divine Command Theory is that the moral worth of an act is supposed to be wholly dependent upon the will of God, but assent to the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma—that virtue is inherent in the act—compels one to accept that the morality of an act is not defined by God’s will, but is prior to and independent of it. This is sometimes called the independence problem: virtue being independent of God’s fiat.
This is a problem because the average theist10 believes in an omnipotent and omniscient God—creator of, and sovereign over, everything (including morality). The first horn of the Dilemma implies that God did not create morality and is not sovereign over morality. His will is restricted by an external constraint (moral facts and principles). If God is not the wellspring of morality, then it is possible to be moral without even so much as an inkling that God might be a thing. Therefore, the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma implies that God is irrelevant to morality.
Both Luther11 and Calvin12 were aware of this difficulty, and therefore gave themselves over to the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma: that acts derive their status as virtuous from the will of God. But that horn comes with its own set of problems—the interrelated issues of arbitrariness and the abhorrent command.
To illustrate the arbitrariness problem, ask yourself why God commands us to not kill. Is the question intelligible? Yes, it is intelligible because you can provide a list of reasonable answers for the commandment. God forbids us to kill because killing causes suffering, and we have a duty to avoid causing suffering; because not killing brings about more good than does killing; because chaos would reign if killing were the norm; because killing may be a violation of human nature.
However, if the second horn of the dilemma is correct, then the reasons listed above are irrelevant—they are not the reasons that God has for forbidding killing. If they were his reasons, it would mean that God is influenced by ethical considerations and moral facts that could alter his commands, and we will have fallen back upon the first (unacceptable) horn. With any of God’s commands (do not lie, steal, commit adultery, etc.) if you can explain why he commands it, then the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma is false.
In order for the second horn to be true, God cannot dictate according to any of these reasons—or for that matter, of any reasons at all. But if there are no reasons to justify God’s dictates, then that means they are arbitrary. If an act is not moral until God wills it so, then it is impossible for there to be moral facts to inform God’s will, and God’s commands are derived in a moral vacuum. This is precisely what the second horn says. If there were moral facts that informed God’s rule making, then those facts would exist independent of and prior to God’s will, and we would find ourselves once again impaled upon the first horn of the dilemma.
According to the second horn, because there is no standard of morality independent of the will of God, virtue is simply whatever God says that it is. This means that if God were to command rape, murder, child abuse, torture, slavery, or genocide,13 these things would be, by definition, virtuous. William of Ockham14 went so far as to assert that were God to command it, it would be virtuous to hate God.
There is something peculiar about suggesting that hating God, lying, murder, stealing, etc. would be virtuous simply because God says it is. However, this necessarily follows from the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma. If the virtuousness of an act is determined, not by some moral principle or some intrinsic worth of the act, but because of the will of God and nothing else, then the inescapable corollary is you have to accept that stealing, rape, murder, and any other arbitrary act would be virtuous if that’s what God commanded.
Like my friend who contemplated converting to Islam for the purposes of sticking to the strait and narrow, you and I know—independent of any knowledge of God and His will—that child abuse, murder, genocide, etc., are not morally permissible. Such acts would continue to be unvirtuous even if archeologists discovered a tablet advocating those things and signed by the good Lord Himself.
Because it is absurd to accept that rape, murder, genocide, and hating God would be virtuous if God so willed it, we are compelled to reject the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma as simply nonsensical.
Sin is real if and only if Divine Command Theory is true.
If Divine Command Theory is correct, then one of the following statements is correct:
(i) The virtue of an act is something that is known to God, therefore God says it is virtuous, or
(ii) An act is virtuous because God says it is virtuous.
We are compelled to reject (i) because it means that God is irrelevant to morality.
We are compelled to reject (ii) because it leads to the absurd conclusion that morality is random, and that immoral acts would be moral if God so commanded.
If both (i) and (ii) are false, then Divine Command Theory is false.
Both (i) and (ii) are false.
Divine Command Theory is false.
Sin is not real.
No doubt a few readers will have noted that LDS theology actually has some fairly unique responses to the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. While most Christian traditions insist that God is the infinite creator of all things (including morality), Mormonism postulates a finite God. The concept has its beginnings as early as 1839 when the Prophet Joseph was entertaining the possibility of a plurality of Gods (D&C 121: 26–28), a concept he fully embraced by 1842 when he published the creation account in chapters 4 and 5 the Book of Abraham, which refers to plural Gods some 45 times.
The doctrine was solidified in the popular LDS mind with Lorenzo Snow’s pithy couplet, “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be,” which he unabashedly described as a “revelation.”16 According to his son, in 1843 Snow reported this revelation to the Prophet Joseph, who replied “that is a true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you.”17 In April 1844, Smith expounded on the doctrine at length in his famous “King Follett Sermon.” And in June of that same year, Smith elaborated further, saying that God the father has a father.18 Indeed, the apologetic group FairMormon describes this “finite God” position as “seemingly the dominant one in LDS thought.”19
If God had to learn to be God “by going from one small degree to another,”20 then His morality was learned from a source outside of Him (His Father-God), and is constrained by the moral principles imposed upon him by His Father-God. Furthermore, there is scriptural authority for the view that God is constrained by moral considerations found in D&C 82:10, and in Alma 42.
So whereas the believer in an infinite God is led to reject the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma because it implies a limited God who is not necessary for morality, the believer in the non-infinite (relatively infinite?21) God of LDS theology ought not be threatened at all, having scriptural and prophetic authority for accepting that God is indeed constrained by authority and principles not of his making.
Nevertheless, my thesis stands: the virtue of an act is not determined by the will of God. Even if an act is a violation of the will of God, its wrongness is not determined by His will.
Mormonism’s response to the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma mirrors that of William of Ockham and John Calvin, who believed that anything commanded by God, no matter how abhorrent, is good and moral simply by virtue of the fact that God has commanded it. How does Mormonism, especially with its hyperfocus on Victorian-era morality and family values, get to such a point?
You can find the answer in a letter written by the Prophet Joseph to Nancy Rigdon (daughter of his counselor Sidney Rigdon):
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another . . . Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire . . .
[E]ven things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part . . . in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation . . .
Everything that God gives us is lawful and right.22
He wrote the letter to convince Nancy that she should follow (to her) an abhorrent command: to become his plural wife.
The content of Smith’s letter undergirds the maxim “obedience is the first law of heaven,” which has been in use in the LDS Church since at least 1873,23 and was popularized by apostle Bruce R. McConkie: “Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest. It consists in compliance with divine law, in conformity to the mind and will of Deity, in complete subjection to God and his commands.”24
Although there might be multiple ways to interpret the maxim, it appears to be saying that obedience takes priority over all other moral principles and moral intuitions. Many LDS Church leaders have discussed Nephi’s killing of Laban (in 1 Nephi 4) as a correct act because the Lord commanded it.25
Indeed, Church president Wilford Woodruff26 famously declared that God would never allow the president to lead the Church astray. Consequently, according to apostle Marion G. Romney, if the prophet tells you to do something that appears to be morally wrong, you are to do it anyway:
I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home . . . Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’27
In the minds of many Latter-day Saints, the privileging of obedience over other moral considerations solves the problems of arbitrariness and abhorrent commands. However, as Smith pointed out in the letter I quoted earlier, the command is correct not because it comes from God, but because we cannot yet perceive its justification: “we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire . . .” You have faith that obeying a seemingly arbitrary or abhorrent command is preparing you for something greater. God is leading you in the right direction.
Thus, Mormons also escape my earlier observation that people who try to proselytize for their religion subconsciously believe that a person can know what is virtuous without knowing God or joining their religion. In the LDS worldview, you must know God in order to receive knowledge from him of which seemingly arbitrary and abhorrent commands to obey (commands that perhaps have no personal or social virtue—or that are even destructive). You can’t get to heaven just by being virtuous—people who are merely virtuous go to one of the lower kingdoms in the next life. If you want to get to heaven, then literally, “Obedience is the first law . . .”
This peculiarly Mormon way of accepting both horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma still makes my point: God’s will is irrelevant to sin. In Mormon theology, God is only a guide showing you how to navigate pre-existing laws and principles. So, while it is inadvisable to go against the will of God (since he understands things you do not), his will is not actually law. The Law is the law. Sin has nothing to do with God’s will unless we want to define the Law as God, which would be very difficult to get a Mormon to do. (Keeping God in human form is one of Mormonism’s dearest enterprises). So, in a way, sin does exist in an LDS theology (if we replace God with Law in a Mormon version of Divine Command Theory), even if only in functional sense.
When confronted with the eliminative reduction of sin, the believer might counter with, “What’s the harm if I choose to follow God anyway, and trust that in His infinite wisdom He knows what we need and knows what is best for us?” But there are consequences to this worldview. How does placing “virtue” outside of human knowledge and into a beyond-knowable Law affect the development of the average born-and-raised Latter-day Saint?
Just the other day, following a relatively interesting and intelligent conversation about whether drinking green tea is a sin, a coworker said he believed that without the Word of Wisdom he would be a drug addict. He had never ventured further than the odd beer when he was a teenager, then he served a two-year mission,28 married in the temple, had children, and is currently finishing a master’s degree in psychology. He is as stable as the day is long, yet 30 years of immersion in the LDS faith has convinced him that he would be incapable of not abusing drugs without the Church’s guidance.
His low estimation of himself struck me as odd until I started looking deeper into the LDS worldview. Though Joseph Smith explicitly rejected the idea of original sin, Mormonism has its own version of that doctrine. We learn from the scriptures that we are inherently sinners (Romans 3:23); that we are broken and flawed; that “none is good except God” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19); that we are naturally “enemies of God” (Mosiah 3:19); that we are incapable of ascertaining morality on our own, and need to be told the correct behavior by our heavenly parent. The Book of Mormon states that we are inherently bad, and incapable of being good without the fear of punishment (Alma 42).
Mormons often refer to God as their “Heavenly Father,” and believe him to literally be the father of their spirits. But his parenting style seems questionable. If a parent catches a child lying, she could teach the child how lying creates dysfunctional relationships, or she could tell the child “you are a liar” and punish the child.
I recall that when I was perhaps four years old, some boys and I made fun of an obese woman at church. Instead of punishing me, my mother helped me to imagine what it would be like to be the recipient of that kind of treatment. The research literature29 is fairly consistent in finding that punishment does not teach a child correct behavior, but motivates a child to avoid punishment. Had my mother punished me, the likely outcome would not have been that I would have been more thoughtful about the feelings of others, but that I would have been extra vigilant about not teasing obese ladies when my mother was within earshot. As it was, I was able to empathize with that woman and realize that my behavior was hurtful, and therefore wrong—independent of whether my mother forbade teasing obese women, and independent of whether I would have been punished for doing so.
Typically, a child moves away from these obedience/punishment/reward stages of morality before they hit the double digits, but, as we have seen, the LDS conception of God requires individuals to cede their internal locus of moral control and moral development—though usually not to God himself, but to the Church, which provides a checklist of good behavior30 (Did I pay tithing? Am I dressed modestly? Did I refrain from drinking coffee?) while retaining carte blanche to add any other requirement, no matter how arbitrary or abhorrent it may be. (We have seen this power used most recently in Russell Nelson’s October 2018 General Conference talk where he insisted that the word Mormon no longer be used to describe the LDS Church. The only reason he gave for this arbitrary change was that Jesus had commanded it.) Thus, a Latter-day Saint may never move past the childhood stages of moral development31 to the more mature stages in which the worth of acts is no longer determined by authority and punishment, but by an internalization of the moral environment (family, school, church, community).
What we are approaching here is the difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parents explain why an act is good or bad, encouraging a child to reason through processes (considering consequences, duties, empathy, calculations of happiness v. suffering) that lead them to arrive at constructive moral conclusions. In other words, authoritative parents teach their children induction—the ability to reason through future ethical challenges. Authoritarian parenting, on the other hand, simply dictates the rules and expects the child to comply, punishing disobedience. In this case, correct behavior does not flow from an internalized moral capacity, but from a desire to avoid punishment. Without the ability to reason through moral issues, someone from an authoritarian home is less equipped to face future unique ethical dilemmas.32
On literally every measure, those who grow up in authoritative (inductive) homes outperform those who grow up in authoritarian (obedience and punishment) homes in psychological health,33 grades and school success,34 and healthy relationships with parents.35 Those who grow up in authoritarian homes (obedience, punishment) suffer in academic performance.36 Authoritarian-style discipline is also linked with stress and depression,37 substance abuse, 38 delinquency,39 bullying,40 and future marital violence.41 There may not be many (any?) absolutes in the social sciences, but the superiority of authoritative to authoritarian parenting is, by every standard, as close to universal as you will find.42
So, my first answer to “what’s the harm” to subscribing to the LDS version of Divine Command Theory, is that it encapsulates precisely the sort of authoritarian parenting that leads to poor outcomes on every measure.
My second answer is epistemological.43 To accept the LDS version of Divine Command as one’s sole source of morality is to accept that salvation is absolutely dependent on acting in accordance with the Law’s commands. The problem is, other religions have different versions of that commandment list. And it seems that God designed humans in such a way that every culture spontaneously generates religions that justify themselves by recourse to faith. Since faith is the idea that it is acceptable/desirable/virtuous to assent to unjustified and unjustifiable religious propositions, then it is impossible to judge between competing sets of unjustifiable beliefs in order to settle on which is the correct religion. This is a real problem since God apparently intends to judge us according to whether we follow the moral directives of that correct religion.
Perhaps we’d like some wiggle room to say, “Well, there is good in all religions.” But if that is so, then Divine Command Theory is indistinguishable from the moral relativism that persons of faith are so quick to disparage. If there are multiple religions and categories of religion, each with an equally legitimate claim (i.e. faith), then their incommensurate moral standards are all equally acceptable. What’s right/wrong for me as a Mormon is incompatible with what’s right or wrong for you as a Muslim, yet the claims to the correct interpretation of divine will are all equally (un)justifiable in that they all rest upon faith.
So my second answer to “what’s the harm” is that God judging us according to whether we follow the correct set of rules when, by His design, it is literally impossible to ascertain which is the correct set, is profoundly unjust and immoral.44
A third answer to “what’s the harm” is the problem of externalization of responsibility for moral or immoral actions.
While lecturing on Divine Command Theory in class one day, I threw out what I presumed to be a softball question for the purposes of making a point. “Let’s say that we agree that God says to not beat your wife. Is the fact that God forbids it the thing that makes wife beating immoral?” In unison, a sizeable portion of the class said no. However, three guys (all LDS), and one girl (not LDS but raised in a very conservative religion) answered yes. I was slightly taken aback, so I asked for some elaboration. One young (married) man said that God is the source of all morality, therefore without directives from God, there is no moral standard, and without the threat of punishment, he had no reason to not beat his wife. Yes, he said that. Out loud.
If one has no internal standard of morality, but operates according to obedience out of fear of punishment, can that person really be said to be a moral person at all? If you tell me that your only reason for not beating your spouse is fear of punishment, then you are telling me that you have no internal moral standard against such abuse. If you tell me that your reason for not murdering, raping, or molesting children rests solely on God’s command and fear of punishment, you are describing yourself as an amoral person. If you can seriously tell me that if you have no fear of punishment in the afterlife then anything goes, if you can look me in the eye and tell me that in the absence of fear of the consequences, you have no internal reason to not molest children, then you are at best amoral, and frankly, morally inferior to the person who does not need to be told by God not to molest children.45
You may feel that I am overstating my case—that most orthodox Mormons have a much better developed inner moral compass than I’m positing. However, I have had more than one student in my office, sometimes in tears, saying something like “I have concluded that the LDS Church is not what it claims to be and have decided to leave it. But the Church was my source of morality, and now I feel like I literally do not know what is right and wrong.” Growing up in the Church convinced these young adults that they are not capable of developing an internal moral code—that they are dependent upon the external code imposed by the Church. When the Church lost its sway over them, that code dissolved, along with the only moral guide these young people had ever used. They abruptly found themselves trying to develop an internal moral compass that ought to have been developed earlier. They suddenly had to encounter weighty questions about food choices, alcohol, correct dress, sexual activity, etc., which, for a normal healthy adult, would not present an issue—they having confronted those issues during adolescence while developing their moral compass.
Christianity loses the concept of sin to the Euthyphro Dilemma because the Dilemma makes God either irrelevant to morality (morality being pre-existent to God rather than created by him), or makes room for the arbitrary and abhorrent command (God can command us to hate God). But Mormons gets to keep sin through their unique version of Divine Command Theory, which allows them to accept a limited God as well as arbitrary and abhorrent commands. However, this theological innovation tends to create amoral individuals: the kind who (metaphorically) eat their vegetables not because veggies are good for the body, but because Mom said to; the kind who tie their right shoe first, even though it is an arbitrary rule to which no actual good is attached; the kind who would feel obliged to speed up in a school zone if the sign said to do so, because “Obedience is the first law of heaven,” and “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is . . .” Rather than pointing toward a pre-existing, knowable good, the sign is the good. This worldview tends to inhibit the development of a person’s internal moral compass, placing the locus of personal morality outside oneself. If the authority of that external morality collapses, the personal morality of the person adhering to it is likely to follow.
At the beginning of this article, I said that sin is to morality as Zeus’s thunderbolt is to weather. Like Zeus’s thunderbolt, sin does not exist and contributes nothing to our understanding of morality. In fact, it seems that the concept of sin, when it is preserved by the Mormon version of Divine Command Theory, actually depletes one’s understanding of morality, confining its adherents to a childhood phase of moral development.
What I’d like to propose is that we broker a trade: sin for morality. The concept of sin, especially as postulated by the LDS Church’s Divine Command Theory, functions optimally in a tribal culture with few contacts with other cultures. If an arbitrary or abhorrent command rears up, it affects only its culture of origin. However, we live in an integrated, pluralistic society where it is destructive if one culture removes itself from communication and negotiation with the other cultures. An arbitrary or abhorrent command can cause a lot of damage in that context, not only to the culture of origin’s members, but to the surrounding cultures.
Morality, on the other hand, is well suited to the pluralistic society since moral norms can be negotiated amongst the various resident cultures (the safety of children is important, the health of each citizen is important, etc.). As times and circumstances change, morals can be adjusted for optimal benefit to the various cultures. A focus on morality rather than on sin in the LDS community would also help its members develop a more robust moral compass rather than an obedience born of fear or reward—a moral compass that could be applicable in many contexts.
1. I would like to take credit for coming up with idea of using Zeus’s Thunderbolts as an analogy to illustrate eliminative reduction, but that honor belongs James Cornman, “On the Elimination of ‘Sensations’ and Sensations,” Review of Metaphysics 22 (1968), 190–229, who beat me to it by 50 years.
2. Not all reductions are eliminative, as shown in Paul Churchland & Patricia Churchland, “Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist’s Field,” in Neurophilosophy and Alzheimer’s Disease, edited by Yves Christen and Patricia Churchland (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 18–29.That is, just because something is explained at a more basic level, it doesn’t normally mean that it doesn’t exist. Heat can be reduced to mean molecular motion, and light to waves of electromagnetic radiation with a particular range, but that doesn’t mean that heat and light are eliminated.
3. “Sin,” Guide to the Scriptures, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.lds.org/scriptures/gs/sin (accessed 21 March 2019).
4. “Sin,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.lds.org/topics/sin?lang=eng (accessed 21 March 2019).
5. “Sin (Theology of),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sin-theology (accessed 21 March 2019).
6. There are plenty of places to find definitions of Divine Command Theory. For example: “Divine Command Theory,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/ (accessed 18 March 2019), and “Divine Command Theory,” Philosophy of Religion, http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/christian-ethics/divine-command-theory/ (accessed 18 March 2019).
7. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, translated by Harold North Fowler, introduction by W. R. M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1966).
8. A previous draft called it a “Dukes of Hazardesque Speed Trap,” but then I reconsidered and thought that tacking “-esque” onto the end of The Dukes of Hazard might be humorous to no one but myself.
9. Plato, “Euthyphro.”
10. . . . average “Western” theist. This argument is really directed at Western monotheistic conceptions of God
11. Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will (1525). “. . . for [God’s] will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it.”
12. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). “. . . everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it.”
13. *cough* Old Testament *cough*
14. William of Ockham, Reportata 4.16.
15. There have been attempts to respond to the Euthyphro Dilemma. When I evaluate these answers objectively I find them unpersuasive. This piece is long enough already, so I will not consider possible responses to the paradox. I encourage the interested reader to look up such responses, and I am confident the reader will find the responses lacking.
16. Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1884), 46–47.
17. LeRoi C. Snow, Improvement Era, June 1919, 656. Reproduced in “I Have a Question,” Ensign, November 1982, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1982/02/i-have-a-question/is-president-snows-statement-as-man-now-is-god-once-was-as-god-now-is-man-may-be-accepted-as-official-doctrine?lang=eng (accessed 21 March 2019).
18. History of the Church, 7 vols., 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1950), 6:473–479.
19. “Mormonism and the Concept of Infinite Regress of Gods,” FairMormon.org, https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mormonism_and_the_nature_of_God/Infinite_regress_of_Gods#Question:Is_it_true_that_Mormon_doctrine_teaches_a_.22genealogy_of_gods.2C.22_in_which_God_the_Father_had.2Fhas_a_god.2C_and_this_god_had_a_god.2C_and_so_forth (accessed 21 March 2019).
20. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 346.
21. Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 1:29.
22. Manuscript History of the Church 5:134–136. The source of this letter is John C. Bennett, who became a critic of the Church. No original copy exists. So although commonly accepted as authentic, there is a possibility that it was fabricated or modified by Bennett.
23. Joseph F. Smith in Journal of Discourses 16: 248.
24. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 539.
25. For example: William D. Oswald, “Obedience: The First Law of Heaven,” Ensign, January 2008, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2008/01/obedience-the-first-law-of-heaven?lang=eng; Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Will of the Father,” Devotional, 17 January 1989, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/jeffrey-r-holland_will-father/ (accessed 21 March 2019).
26. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, edited by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1946), 212–13.
27. Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” Liahona, June 1981, https://www.lds.org/liahona/1981/06/fourteen-fundamentals-in-following-the-prophet?lang=eng (accessed 21 March 2019).
28. I say “mission” but he was assigned to Utah. While I was tracting in -30 degree weather, he and his companions would choose which roads to tract based on which road they thought they’d get more cash gifts on. At least that’s how he describes it.
29. Fairly good summary here: Anne B. Smith, “The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment,” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand Te Puna Whakaaro 27 (March 2006), https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj27/the-state-of-research-on-effects-of-physical-punishment-27-pages114-127.html (accessed 21 March 2019).
30. S. Richard Bellrock, “CTR Rings: The Embodiment of a Misguided Categorical Imperative,” The Unexamined Faith, 25 July 2017, https://unexaminedfaith.blogspot.com/2017/07/ctr-rings-embodiment-of-misguided.html (accessed 21 March 2019).
31. Lawrence Kohlberg, “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16,” Ph.D. Diss., University of Chicago, 1958. Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1932).
32. Maja Deković and Jan Janssens, “Parents’ Child: Rearing Style and Child’s Sociometric Status,” Developmental Psychology 28 (5): 925–932. Jan Janssens and Maja Deković, “Child Rearing, Prosocial Moral Reasoning, and Prosocial Behaviour,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 20 (3): 509–527.
33. Susie D. Lamborn, Nina S. Mounts, Laurence Steinberg and Sanford M. Dornbusch (1991). “Patterns of Competence and Adjustment among Adolescents from Authoritative, Authoritarian, Indulgent, and Neglectful Families,” Child Development 62 (October 1991): 1049–1065. Janet Shucksmith, Leo Hendry, and Anthony Glendinning, “Models of Parenting: Implications for Adolescent Well-being Within Different Types of Family Contexts,” Journal of Adolescence 18 (3): 253–270.
34. Janet Melby and Rand Conger, “Parental Behaviors and Adolescent Academic Performance: A Longitudinal Analysis,” Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6 (1): 113–137.
35. Katherine Mackey, Mary Louise Arnold, Michael W. Pratt, “Adolescents’ Stories of Decision Making in More and Less Authoritative Families: Representing the Voices of Parents in Narrative,” Journal of Adolescent Research 16 (3): 243–268.
36. Melby and Conger, “Parental Behaviors and Adolescent Academic Performance.”
37. Heather A. Turner and David Finkelhor, “Corporal Punishment as a Stressor Among Youth,” Journal of Marriage and Family 58 (1): 155–166. Barry M. Wagner, Patricia Cohen, Judith S. Brook, “Parent/adolescent Relationships: Moderators of the Effects of Stressful Life Events,” Journal of Adolescent Research 11 (3): 347–374.
38. Amador Calafat, Fernando Garcia, Montse Juan, and Elisardo Econa, “Which Parenting Style is More Protective Against Adolescent Substance Use? Evidence Within the European Context,” Drug Alcohol Dependence 38 (5): 185–92. Patricia Dobkin, Richard E. Trembley, and Catherine Sacchitelle, “Predicting Boys’ Early-onset Substance Abuse from Father’s Alcoholism, Son’s Disruptiveness, and Mother’s Parenting Behavior,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 65 (1): 86–92. Franklin N. Glozah, “Exploring the Role of Self-Esteem and Parenting Patterns on Alcohol Use and Abuse Among Adolescents,” Health Psychology Research 2 (3): 1898.
39. Nadine C. Peiser and Patrick C. L. Heaven, “Family Influences on Self-reported Delinquency Among High School Students, Journal of Adolescence 19, 557–568.
40. Jeremy W. Luk, Julie Ann Patock-Peckham, Mia Medina, Nathan Terrell, “Bullying Perpetration and Victimization as Externalizing and Internalizing Pathways: A Retrospective Study Linking Parenting Styles and Self-esteem to Depression, Alcohol Use, and Alcohol-related Problems,” Substance Use and Misuse 51 (1): 1–12.
41. Murray A. Straus and Carrie L. Yodanis, “Corporal Punishment in Adolescence and Physical Assaults on Spouses in Later Life: What Accounts for the Link?” Journal of Marriage and Family 58 (4): 825–841.
42. “What’s Wrong with Strict Parenting?,” AhaParenting.com, https://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/strict-parenting# (accessed 21 March 2019).
43. Epistemology: Theory of knowledge, examines the question of what is truth and what is knowledge. Especially how do we know.
44. This discussion on the role of faith is, in this context, nothing but an undefended premise, a promissory note at best, and will, I hope, be elaborated at some point in the future.
45. . . . and keep the hell away from my family.
One of the best Mormon culture essays I have ever read.
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