Rachels God and Moral Autonomy

Rachels’ God and Moral Autonomy makes several arguments about how God cannot exist by connecting it to one’s moral autonomy. He mentions the impossibility of God’s existence because God, by definition, must be an appropriate being of worship. However, he further explains how no being can be suited for worship since worship would require one to abandon their autonomous moral agent. Because the relationship between a worshipper and an object of worship is infinitely asymmetrical, the believer must seek God’s will and adapt his behavior to that will, which contradicts autonomous decision-making (Tremblay).

Rachels also analyzes the nature of worship by comparing it to the ritual of crowning a prince. The kneeling of the prince symbolizes his subordinate status to the queen. However, only someone who is educated in the meaning of this ritual will understand this act of kneeling as a way of submitting. Similarly, only one who is familiar with the act of worship will recognize the rituals as ways to praise God rather than simple mundane procedures. For example, in many churches, eating bread and drinking grape juice or wine symbolizes the acceptance of Jesus’ body and blood. However, someone from the outside would not recognize this ritual and perhaps interpret it as satisfying one’s hunger and thirst.

There are also many objections to Rachels’ arguments, including the fact that “our responsibility as moral agents is to do right, and God’s commands are right” (Rachels). An autonomous moral agent, by definition, is the ability to independently make decisions, so if one believes that God is worth worshipping, then he/she has activated his/her moral autonomy. Gerald Dworkin supports this objection as well by questioning the definition of autonomy. Suppose a person, acting completely independently, chooses to follow what his parents tell him to do. He is indeed autonomous. But didn’t he just give up his autonomy when he decided to follow someone else’s orders? On one hand, this person is not deciding for himself because in order to predict his actions, we have to look at what his parents tell him to do. In this point of view, he is not autonomous. On the other hand, he has freely and independently decided that listening to his mother’s wishes is the kind of life he wants to lead. In this perspective, he is completely autonomous. Dworkin further mentions that the concept of autonomy that insists upon substantive independence is inconsistent with other important values such as loyalty, objectivity, commitment, benevolence, and love, thereby implying that to have such a strict definition for autonomy would contradict other moral principles.

Moreover, in order to have the title of “God,” a being must have certain qualifications: “he must be all-powerful and perfectly good in addition to being perfectly wise” (Rachels). Choosing to believe in this omnipotent being would be exercising one’s moral autonomy. Therefore, it would make sense for people to place their faith into this seemingly perfect being and consequently, deciding to activate their autonomous moral agent. Rachels also argues that “in worshiping God, one is acknowledging and accepting this role, and that is the point of the ritual of worship.” This further implies that those who decide to worship God know what they are doing, so they use their moral autonomy to follow God’s commands. Although this may seem contradictory to an autonomous moral agent, they still initially decided to freely worship God.

Rachels’ God and Moral Autonomy argues that there is a contradiction between worshipping God and exercising moral autonomy. However, to have such a rigid view on the definition of autonomy brings up other complications and conflicts with other important moral values as well.

Works Cited

Dworkin, Gerald. Cambridge Studies in Philosphy. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

Rachels, James. “God and Moral Autonomy.” Can Ethics Provide Answers? And Other Essays In Moral Philosophy. N.p.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996. N. pag. Print.

Tremblay, Francois. “Argument From Moral Autonomy.” Strong Atheism. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014. <http://www.strongatheism.net/library/atheology/argument_from_moral_autonomy/>.

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