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Muddying Moral Theology: An Interview with Alex O’Connor (Part 2)

Alex O’Connor is a prominent British advocate for animal rights and secularism. Over the past five years, he has frequently shared his views through his popular YouTube channel, Cosmic Skeptic, which has nearly half a million subscribers. On his podcast, O’Connor has conversed with many notable figures, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Peter Singer, and political commentator Douglas Murray. Additionally, he has appeared on BBC South and Channel 4 News, as well as at various conferences, radio shows, and universities where he has debated topics related to religion, politics, and ethics. He holds a degree in philosophy and theology from St. John’s College, Oxford University.

Alex Fasseas & Marcus Ellinas: To this day, religion claims to have a monopoly on morality. Even if we grant that God exists, are religious frameworks actually successful in determining what is morally right and wrong?

AO: It’s a fascinating question. Whatever problem it is that atheists supposedly have with grounding morality, does God actually plug that gap? It’s going to depend on what the theological moral position is. For example, if somebody thinks that murder is wrong because God said so, then you still have problems. God may be the author of the universe, but what happens if I just ignore him? What happens if I just do the opposite of what he wants? Well, maybe I’ll go to hell… And so what? Well, you’re going to suffer… Okay, but that would seem to just collapse into a view that suffering should be avoided.

But perhaps things are just wrong, and even if you ignore them, you’re still bound by them. Then you’ve got this problem of explaining how moral claims can be true or false in a meaningful sense. We can kind of separate some descriptive and prescriptive elements of a moral claim like “murder is wrong.” If we just mean that God has labeled something good or bad, that to me seems as if he’s just labeled something yellow, or made it big, or made it small. It’s like, “So what? What does that do?” Okay, murder is bad, let’s say. Love is good. Are you just describing the object? No, morality has to have a prescriptive element. So what is that prescriptive element? It’s something like the marriage of “X is good,” and “do what is good,” or “X is bad,” and “don’t do what’s bad.” So, “murder is wrong,” means something like “murder is bad” plus, “do not murder.” The problem is that the actual prescriptive element—the bit that tells you what to do—is essentially a command: “Do not murder.” That can’t be true or false.

Think of some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall not commit adultery.” Is that true? It’s an order, it’s not something that can be true or false, so what exactly are we talking about when we say that God gives objectivity to morality? Do you mean that God makes things objectively true? That doesn’t solve the problem of this “command element” in ethical claims. Just because you’ve got somebody who authoritatively can give a command, doesn’t make that command true. Nothing changes when you say, “Oh, but God commanded it.” So I think that in some cases, it doesn’t help you to have a God if you’re trying to objectively ground morality.

AF & ME: We wanted to touch on a rather specific problem in theology, which is the problem of evil. In a debate with Bishop Robert Barron, you questioned why an omnibenevolent God would permit certain forms of evil, such as the millions who have died from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bishop responded that, “We’re in no position to say definitively [that] there is no morally justified reason for a particular evil, because we’d need a God-like perspective in order to make that claim.” Is this a satisfying answer?

AO: No, I think it’s a bizarre argument to make in a position of trying to publicly defend the existence of an omnibenevolent God and his compatibility with evil. I think Bishop Barron is wonderful. It was a real pleasure to speak to him, but I did find that we were often talking at cross-purposes, because he liked to speak in a rather poetic storytelling manner, and I felt like I was trying to chisel away at it, trying to kind of hammer in with something a little bit more analytically sturdy, like, “What are you actually saying?”

Consider, hypothetically, that you witness your good friend being shot dead in the street, and his wallet gets taken and the perpetrator runs away. Now, you probably want to be angry and upset and blame that person morally, but then imagine somebody else says to you, “Ah, but listen, as long as it’s logically possible that there was morally sufficient reason for this, you can’t really say that what he did was wrong. You would need to have a God-like perspective in order to say that this is wrong, because for all you know, your friend might be an undercover agent working for a foreign government who was concealing secrets about nuclear weapons in his wallet. And so that was actually a government official that just came along and killed him and prevented a world war from erupting!” Is it likely? Who knows? Again, you’d have to have a “God-like perspective” to even calculate the probabilities. But in what world would we possibly take that kind of approach to the problem seriously? We’re not facing a situation where you stubbed your toe and you think to yourself, “Well, maybe there’s some good reason for that, maybe that made me stop for a moment and think about what I’m doing.”

AF & ME: And we’re not just talking about stubbed toes… 

AO: Yes—this applies to the worst horrors imaginable, non-humans and humans going through tortures and pains that we are not even capable of imagining, and then someone come along and says: “Well, don’t worry, there exists a loving God who is presiding over all of this, who is supervising all this suffering.” And then you ask, “Well, why on Earth is He allowing this to happen?” And the response comes, “Well, who are you to ask that question? You’re not God.” To which you reply, “I’m sorry, I’m not the one making the claim here, I’m not the one claiming that this kind of stuff can be morally justified.”

If you just think to yourself, “Well, the world is a complicated place, there’s lots of suffering in it, and I’m sure God has some reason,” fine, you can think that. But if you’re going to come out publicly and say that you can defend that proposition, to say that you can defend the idea that there’s a loving God in the face of all this evil, then you better have something stronger than a mere assertion that it’s logically possible that there’s some morally permissible reason for this. That to me is an absurd response. And as I said to Bishop Barron at the time, it means that you also forfeit the right to say that anything is good, because if a good thing happens in the world, if you see a beautiful sunset or people falling in love or something like that, you say, “Oh, how wonderful.” Then Bishop Barron comes and touches you on the shoulder and says, “Oh, well, I wouldn’t be so sure, you don’t have a God-like perspective, you don’t know the people who just fell in love, maybe he’s gonna murder her one day, you don’t know. You’d have to have a God-like perspective, so you can’t say that that’s good.” That’s not how people think.

AF & ME: Many contemporary thinkers, such as Jordan Peterson, accuse atheists of claiming that a god does not exist, but acting as though one does. Is Peterson right?

AO: Peterson is saying that in order to act ethically, you need to think that God exists, or at least act like God exists. This is a far more radical claim than the one usually made by theologians, which is simply that you can be good without believing in God, but you just can’t ground that goodness. You can be a good person and an atheist, but you can’t justify the goodness on an atheist worldview. Peterson, on the other hand, seems to argue that you can’t even be good without some kind of psychological assumption that something like a God exists, or at least an inbuilt tendency to pretend as though God exists.

But when Peterson says, “You can’t be good without acting as if God exists,” it’s very easy to turn around and say, “Well, there are obviously many evil things that people do that they wouldn’t be capable of unless they thought God did exist.” There are endless examples of these kinds of things—you’re probably already thinking of some. And as long as that claim can just be reversed, I don’t see why it’s a serious criticism.

AF & ME: You’ve shared many conversations with various public figures—some of whom are strongly religious. Do you have any strategies for interviewing people that you disagree with?

AO: I guess I just act as if we’re friends. If we were people at the pub having this conversation, then I’d feel like the way to have a good time conversationally is just to kick back and have a chat. I really don’t see why it would be more difficult to conduct a conversation with somebody you disagree with. If anything, it’s easier. If you’re asking about not getting angry or wanting to throw something at them, I’ve just never had that feeling, partly due to the fact that I try my very best to understand where a person is coming from. I’ll trace the steps, I’ll consider their worldview and think, “Well, how might they end up here?” If I’m interviewing William Lang Craig and he says that he’s against gay marriage, you might want to have a knee-jerk reaction and think, “Well, screw that guy.” Or you can think, “Well, why does he think that?” Because he believes that Christianity is true. He believes Christianity dictates that this is the case. And then you think to yourself, “Well, if that were true, then his view would make sense.” Okay, right. And so I would just continue, “So you think gay marriage is wrong, let’s chat about it.” I don’t see why it should be difficult to conduct ourselves appropriately in those circumstances.

The one tip that I would have for interviewing people you disagree with would be to treat it as a very rare opportunity, especially if you’re having a public conversation, to give people an opportunity to hear both sides of an issue.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.