‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.4: “What if God told you…?”

At the end of my last post on this book analysis series I commented on Boghossian’s rather bizarre redefinition of the word ‘delusion’ and suggested that his usage of the word, together with his non-standard definition of ‘faith’, cannot possibly be seen as helpful in the context of religious and non-religious people having meaningful conversations.

The rest of chapter 4 (‘Interventions and Strategies’) is really just basic advice on how to have good conversations with people. It ranges from basic commonsense principles most people would already agree with (“express empathy” Loc.1450) right through to the downright patronizing (people who are unwilling to change their views despite a SE ‘intervention’ should be regarded as “precontemplative” Loc.1476 or, in a more honest and less politically correct moment, “denial” Loc.1495). Notice that this is evidence of what William Lane Craig has noticed about Boghossian’s project. He is NOT just attacking people’s ideas – he is also attacking THEM. To claim a person is in denial about something is to attack them as a person as having some personality disorder. It is important to notice this because Boghossian often insists he is not interested in attacking people.


In this post I am going to focus on a conversation Boghossian describes right at the end of the chapter. It is called, “Intervention 2: Kill all left-handed people.”

Boghossian tells a story of how he ended up in a church as he was picking up a friend’s daughter from choir practice and how he targeted a young man in his early twenties while waiting for the practice to finish. After discussing a few other matters Boghossian asks him if God still speaks to people today and the young man affirms his belief that God still does. So Boghossian asks:

“Let’s say that God told you to kill all left-handed people and…”

He gets interrupted as the young man tells him God would not ask him to do that but Boghossian insists that the young man goes with him in his thought experiment. Again he insists that the young man think about a scenario where he became completely and utterly convinced that God had spoken to him and told him to order all left-handed people to be killed and what he would do. Again the young man replies by saying that God would not tell him to do that but Boghossian keeps pressing for a response to this hypothetical scenario by pointing out that God asked Abraham to kill his son in the Old Testament.

Here his Christian interlocutor made a mistake. His mistake was in thinking that God could possibly give this type of command in the part of the Christian narrative we currently find ourselves in. So he tells Boghossian that if he knew for certain that the command came from God then he would do it. (Boghossian then attempts to make the young man feel uncomfortable about admitting this as it conflicts with how he feels about killing people.)

Even if we change the genre of the killing to something more akin to some Old Testament commands (instead of killing left handed people (since that is a bit random) let’s change it to people of some extreme religious view which could undermine Christianity and lead people away from God) that command simply does not fit with where the Christian moral story currently is. [1] There were reasons for the conquests in the Old Testament (the importance of Judah’s line bringing about the Messiah) which simply don’t exist after Jesus has lived and fulfilled his mission. This is why Jesus informs his disciples that the Old Testament law is fulfilled in him. This is why he insists that the time has come in the narrative to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who curse you.

So Boghossian’s question essentially becomes:

“What if God asked you to do something it’s impossible for the God of Christianity to ask you to do?”

The question becomes virtually meaningless [2] and it’s why the young Christian man should have stayed with his initial response to Boghossian instead of getting brow-beaten into answering the question the way he ended up doing.

Any ‘vision’ or ‘experience’ any Christian (or any person for that matter) has which contradicts the moral teachings of Jesus cannot be from God. This is the essence of what it is to be a Christian. Christians believe that God’s fullest expression of what we should do is found in the teachings of Jesus. Therefore, if I had such an experience, I would have to conclude I was deceived.

Toward the end of this intervention the young man asks Boghossian what his point is and he replies:

“I don’t really have a point. I’m just trying to figure out the limits of your faith. It seems to me that your faith is limitless.”

Given everything Boghossian has said about interventions up to this point in his book it’s very hard to believe he is being sincere when he claims he’s not making a point! Notice that as far as he tells us, he did not tell the young man that he was the subject in an intervention. He rather deceives him by making it sound like he’s just thinking on the spot out loud. He finishes by saying to the young man:

“I’m not sure how you or anyone else could ever be certain that God is talking to you. Just because someone is positive that God speaks to them doesn’t mean that God actually spoke to them. They could be mistaken. And just because you feel that Jesus is the Son of God, I’m not sure that you could ever be certain about that either. You could always be mistaken, maybe even delusional. Maybe it’s an idea that’s germinated and developed in you because of our culture and the way our brains work.” [Loc1624]

Notice what Boghossian is up to here. Remember that his aim is to reduce the confidence theists have in the things they believe (again – another thing he does not admit he’s doing to the young man he’s talking to). He considers an intervention successful if a theist who is a 1.5 (on the Dawkins 1-7 scale of belief) reduces their confidence down to a 1.6. But the tool Boghossian is employing to lower the person’s confidence is nothing less than hyperbolic scepticism. This is the ‘going nuclear’ tactic I have complained about before. [3] The reason this is going nuclear is because Boghossian is merely asking if it’s at all possible in the slightest that someone could be wrong on the basis that the brain is not functioning correctly. But this argument could easily be flipped and used on Boghossian in reverse. I could, just as easily, ask Boghossian if his belief in not killing people could possibly be wrong on the basis that it’s merely logically possible that his brain isn’t functioning correctly (or that all human brains function incorrectly systemically). Surely Boghossian would have to confess that it’s possible that the brain (or human brains in general) is not functioning aright (after all, since the problem is in the brain how would he possibly know). But should a sceptical argument like that really be seen as a challenge to the view that I should not kill people? I think it would be difficult to find too many philosophers who would think that’s a particularly strong argument for revising our moral convictions. Notice that it’s not an argument against any specific Christian belief but rather an argument about the possibility of knowing anything at all and therefore applies as much to Boghossian’s moral convictions as any theistic moral conviction. The only difference is that the atheist might just have a harder time suggesting they have good beliefs for thinking the human mind is rational when compared to a theists reasons for thinking it is. [4]

I hope this post helps you think about how you ought to answer a “What if God…” question if you are a Christian. Thanks for continuing with me in ploughing our way through Boghossian’s book. I hope you find some of it useful.



[1] Here is a very good lecture by Christian scholar Peter Williams in which he talks, in part, about what God can and cannot command. This is vitally important if one is going to attempt to internally critique Christian morality and yet Boghossian appears to have missed this very important point.

[2] I say ‘virtually’ since some atheist philosophers (eg. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) have attempted to create a problem for Christian divine command theory by raising, what Walls and Baggett call, an ‘extended arbitrariness objection’. But since this objection is based on a nonstandard semantics for counterfactuals it looks like a pretty lame argument. For reasons why see ‘Appendix A’ in Good God: The theistic foundations of morality by David Baggett and Jerry Walls.

[3] ‘Going nuclear’ is a term for people who want to doubt something and therefore decide to doubt everything (hence the metaphor). See Boghossian goes nuclear!

[4] See Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict really lies.



About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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8 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.4: “What if God told you…?”

  1. Mike Silva says:

    You make a good point. Where do we see God in the past 2000 years telling individuals to kill lefties, or anybody? There was clearly a break with the coming of Jesus.

    Another tact that would seem to be interesting would be to turn the question around. If God made himself known to Boghossian, beyond any shadow of a doubt, established a strong relationship with him, and told him to kill somebody (let’s even put this back in the old testament, to compare apples to apples), would he or would he not? Would he elevate his own sense of morality over the very source of morality? If so, how could he justify that?

  2. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

  3. jonmicava112 says:

    @mike silva, I don’t think I ever would go through with committing an act that went against my inner moral sense, even if god commanded it. My reasons would be: 1. I do not see why a god-being necessarily bears the highest possible moral code, 2. Given the moral aversion I feel towards this particular god’s past actions as described in his inspired text, which I do not believe are excused by any sort of historical context or rationalization, I would not trust the moral soundness of his commands anyway.

    In context of the blog post, if the best possible moral sense lies outside our own capability of understanding, and calls for an act that we perceive to be morally reprehensible, how could we ever know whether it TRULY is the best moral code? Could not another, higher code exist, also outside our understanding?

    • Mike Silva says:

      @jonmicava112, you can’t examine an action taken under one world view by using a very different world view. If you’re going to fault e.g. Abraham for being willing to kill his son, you have to accept Abraham’s understanding of God, not your own, and from that understanding, explain why he was wrong. Expanding that notion, you have to accept, for the purpose of addressing these sorts of questions, the Judeo-Christian understanding of the God doing the ordering. That God is the very source of all truth, all good, all beauty, all justice, all mercy, all life. You may disagree, but that was their understanding. You have to explain, given for the purpose of the question that this God exists, how it could possibly be justified to disobey this God. How could you be more moral than morality itself, more just than justice itself, more merciful than mercy itself?

      • jonmicava112 says:

        What you suggest seems only a way to understand why Abraham would do what he did. But judging it as immoral? I certainly can do so from my modern world view. We should do so, because our world vkew is much more thorough than his.

  4. I didn’t watch the video but I often see atheists asking what a Christian would do if God did something like this. The question is a crazy counter-factual, and its very hard to say what anyone would do if we are presented with a crazy counter-factual. What would Martin Luther King have done if he was not Christian? proper answer is: I don’t know what to think that reality is drastically different than the reality we live in. Its a world much different than the one we live in.
    If Stalin was a devout Christian? What if Mother Theresa was a sociopathic pedophile what would she be like?
    Again the reality is so far removed its hard to answer truthfully these sort of what if questions.

    In the past I just respond to these questions by throwing it back “what if you decided it was the right thing to do to kill everyone that was left hand dominant?”

    They will respond I won’t do that. But then they often agree that they don’t really control their beliefs. (often they say they didn’t choose to be atheist they just are because of lack of evidence or whatever) But I keep pushing the question.

    Its normal for people to express confusion when we ask them to assume reality is drastically different.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Nice to hear from you again. I hope you had a lovely Easter.

      I think that your response is perhaps the best one in such circumstances. People don’t appear to see just how weak arguments from counter-factuals can so often be.

      It is also the problem that some people treat the Bible as if it’s a cook book rather than a narrative and that is extremely frustrating.

      The shame with this discussion was the young lad had the correct answer but he got bullied into giving a bad answer.


      • Easter was great for me. I hope yours was as well.

        I’m glad to be reading your blog again. It is one of my favorites.

        I have noticed that atheists often resort to bullying tactics. Although they have some arguments, that is not really what is driving the anti-theist boat. It’s often lots of propaganda (picture with soundbite x50000) and name calling.

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