Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Problem of Worship - Aikin

I must say, I’m looking forward to Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse’s new book Reasonable Atheism. From what I gather, the book will deal with the status of belief in God in a liberal democratic state. This is a topic I’m interested in and have covered on the blog before.

I’m currently preparing an article on this topic (as a spinoff from my own PhD research), and I’m interested to see whether Aikin and Talisse’s book has usurped me by making the argument I want to make. Since the book has only just been released, and will probably take several weeks to reach me here in Ireland, I’ve decided to go through the following article by one of the book’s co-authors:

The article makes the argument that God cannot exist because there can be no being who is a proper object of worship (which is what God is supposed to be). Along the way to reaching that conclusion, Aikin makes some interesting comments about the nature of moral agency and the nature of worship.

In this post, I try to summarise and reconstruct the parts of Aikin’s article that focus on worship and the obligations of moral agency. I do not really focus on the claim that God does not exist. This is for an important reason: Much and all as I enjoyed Aikin’s article, I had some serious problems when I tried to reconstruct the argument that he offered. I doubt readers will be interested in these problems, but if they are, they might like to read this exegetical note. Anyway, as a result of my problems, I have deemed it appropriate to reconstruct large parts of what he had to say.

1. God and Worship
We begin with some propositions about the nature of God and worship. The first proposition is:

  • (1) If God exists, then he is a proper object of worship.

This statement seems relatively uncontroversial. As far as I am aware, most theists think that God is worthy of worship. Indeed, many structure their lives around the worship of God. Later, I will suggest that there are two types of worship and that ultimately God is only an object of one of them.

For now, we move on to the question: what does it mean for something to be a “proper object of worship”? Aikin suggests the following answer:

(2) For any object X, if X is the proper object of worship, then all rational moral agents are either:
  • Obliged to worship X;
  • If they worship, they are obliged to worship only X.

Aikin reckons that 2(a) is more typical of the religious attitude toward God, but 2(b) allows a chink of light for those with a more liberal attitude to worship. 2(a) seems more typical because it is often claimed (by some Christians, at any rate) that those who do not worship are somehow guilty of a moral crime.

2. Rational Moral Agency and Worship
We turn now to consider what the act of worship actually entails and whether it is compatible with the demands of rational moral agency. This is where my first major deviation from Aikin’s presentation occurs. To make sense of his argument, I find it necessary to distinguish between two types of worship: (i) conditional-worship or c-worship; and (ii) unconditional-worship or u-worship.

The act of c-worship can be said to look something like this:

(3) For any rational moral agent (A), if A c-worships X, A’s c-worship consists of three elements: 
  • (a) Conditional obedience to X and the demands that X’s existence and properties place on A. 
  • (b) Belief that X is worthy of worship; 
  • (c) Performance of communicative and ritual acts expressing (a) and (b).

The act of u-worship differs from this in one respect only: the obedience is unconditional (we’ll give the proposition stating u-worship the number 4). As will be seen, part of the argument here is that the worship of God could only come in an unconditional form. This is bad because it violates the demands of rational moral agency.

To be a rational moral agent is, by definition, to exercise autonomy over one’s moral life, i.e. to not be ultimately under anyone else’s authority. It is, however, rational to be conditionally obedient or deferent to another being. For example, I am conditionally obedient to the officers of the law in my home state. But I reserve the right to retract this obedience.

I could not be unconditionally obedient to another being. This would be tantamount to a denial of my rational moral agency. It it would involve relinquishing my moral autonomy. So:

  • (5) Unconditional submission, obedience or deference to another being contravenes the requirements of rational moral agency.

Now we are ready to make some arguments.

3. Argument: It is not reasonable to believe that God is a proper object of c-worship
The first argument claims that God cannot reasonably be believed to be a proper object of c-worship. We begin by stating the conditions under which c-worship would be reasonable:

  • (6) If A is to reasonably believe that X is a proper object of c-worship, then A must reasonably believe that X has some property (W) that makes X worthy of c-worship.

This principle is an internalist and evidentialist one. It states that it is never reasonable to accept a conclusion about X’s worthiness of worship without having some evidence or internal knowledge of a W-property to support that conclusion. Non-evidentialists or externalists might be inclined to dispute this principle, but it seems unimpeachable to me. U-worship would not depend on this evidentialist/internalist premise.

We follow this principle with a claim:

  • (7) God has no properties that would make him worthy of c-worship.

And this leads to the obvious conclusion:

  • (8) A cannot reasonably believe that God is a proper object of c-worship.

The argument is sound, but in need of considerable support. Premise (7) is the key. What might encourage us to think that God has no properties that make him worthy of c-worship? Well, if we consider all the properties that are traditionally ascribed to God (separately and jointly) and it turns out that none of them would warrant conditional obedience to him, then the claim might be justified.

So let’s go through all of these properties.

We can take the properties of necessity, immateriality and personality as a group. It is pretty clear that none of these properties would warrant even conditional worship. For example, I am not obedient to other human beings simply because they are persons, they have to earn obedience in other ways. Similarly, immateriality and necessity seem insufficient by themselves to warrant worship or conditional obedience.

Maybe God deserves c-worship for creating us and the world in which we live? The analogy often given here is that of giving thanks to someone who gives you a gift. Two things need to be said about this. First, giving thanks is not equivalent to worship (of either variety). Second, creation seems to be a pretty mixed-bag: some parts of it are good, but others a genuinely horrid. It would be difficult to say that a being deserved worship for providing us with such a mixed-blessing.

How about omnipotence? As has been noted by others, submission to an all-powerful being simply in virtue of the fact that it is all powerful seems to be akin to accepting a fascistic, or totalitarian authority over your life. This would not be compatible with the strictures of moral agency.

Maybe omniscience is a better candidate? Deference to somebody who knows everything seems rational, right? Not so, says Aikin. He makes an interesting argument here. He suggests that any being who deserves our conditional worship would have to respect our right to privacy. After all, the right to think one’s own thoughts is a core component of moral agency. But a being who knows everything would not respect your right to privacy and so would not deserve c-worship.

Then there’s omnipresence. This is even worse than omniscience. A being who was always with you, who never let you alone, would be a harasser. It would not respect your right to be let alone. As such, it could never deserve c-worship.

Perhaps the best candidate property is omnibenevolence. After all, obedience to a being that is perfectly good would seem compatible with our moral agency. Well, perhaps, but then we get into a problem about worshipping a specific being or worshipping an ideal of moral goodness. Worshipping the ideal would not bring with it obedience or the ritual acts of worship. And if we are worshipping a specific being then there is the problem of knowing whether the being truly is truly omnibenevolent. Evidence from scripture and from the problem of evil should give us pause for thought on this front. These problems are often resolved by appeals to faith or to the limitations of human knowledge, but if we were to accept these solutions we would be heading into u-worship territory, i.e. worship without an evidential basis.

According to the Bible, God commands us to worship him and him alone. It’s right there in the first commandment. Should we therefore worship him because he commands us to do so? Obviously not. You would not worship me if I commanded you to do so, and you would be right not to do so.

This raises another possibility though. Perhaps a combination of omnibenevolence and commandment would suffice for c-worship? If God is all-good, then God is a reliable source of moral instruction. And if one of his instructions is to worship him, why not follow it? The response is that a being who commands us to worship him would seem, by that very act, to lose its claim to moral perfection. To command us to worship would be a petulant, self-aggrandising action, not one we would expect of a morally perfect being.

Finally, maybe God deserves worship because he is the redeemer, saver and the keeper of the keys to eternal life? This won’t do either, these properties might make it prudent to worship God, but they do nothing to say that God is worthy of worship.

In conclusion, none of the properties traditionally ascribed to God make him worthy of c-worship. This allows us to construct the following argument in support of (7), above:

  • (9) God is traditionally said to have the following set of properties: (i) necessity; (ii) immateriality; (iii) personality; (iv) creator; (v) omnipotence; (vi) omniscience; (vii) omnipresence; (viii) omnibenevolence; (ix) commander; (x) redeemer.
  • (10) None of the properties (i) - (x) make (or should make one think) God a proper object of c-worship.
  • (7) Therefore, God has no (or should not be thought to have) properties that make him worthy of c-worship.

This conclusion might seem a little strong. It could, after all, be the case that God has other properties, unknown to us, that make him worthy of worship. But to worship him on the basis of unknown properties would amount to u-worship, not c-worship. If the believer wants to appeal to such properties in support of c-worship, then they need to produce the goods and tell us what they are.

4. Argument: We are obliged not to worship God
The next argument follows on from the previous one. It could proceed in one of two ways. I’m going to outline a shorter version of it. This is quite different from the version presented by Aikin.

The argument comes in two stages. The first looks like this:

  • (11) If it is not reasonable to believe X worthy of c-worship, then it would only be possible to u-worship X.

It is not reasonable to believe God worthy of c-worship.

  • (12) It is not reasonable to believe God worthy of c-worship.
  • (13) Therefore, it would only be possible to u-worship God.

We then add to this argument a premise drawn from our earlier claims about what is and is not compatible with the demands of moral agency:

  • (14) Rational agents are obliged not to u-worship any being (from 5).

The idea here is, obviously, that unconditionally surrendering to another being would be contrary to one’s obligations as a moral agent. This is a strong claim and it has interesting implications:

  • (15) All rational moral agents are obliged not to u-worship God (from 13 and 14).

And since we have already (2) said that worship involves communicative and ritual acts, it would follow that:

  • (16) All rational moral agents are obliged not to engage in communicative or ritual acts of u-worship.

This is a conclusion that could have some interesting political and legal consequences, to say the least.

5. Argument: God (probably) does not exist
The final conclusion of Aikin’s article is that God does not exist. It is difficult for me to reach a similar conclusion given my reformulation of what Aikin had to say. Particularly, my effort to draw a distinction between two varieties of worship would weaken the argument significantly to one about the inadequacy of current conceptions of God.

Rather than give my own argument, I will offer a simplified version of the one Aikin offers:

  • (1) If God exists then he is a proper object of worship.
  • (2) If X is a proper object of worship, then A would be obliged to worship X.
  • (3) There is no being whom A is obliged to worship (from preceding argumentation).
  • (4) Therefore, there is no being who is a proper object of worship.
  • (5) Therefore, there is no God.

I’ll look at James Rachels version of this same argument in another post. That’s it for now.


  1. Thanks for carefully and helpfully mapping out these arguments. I think it's a real testament to your thoroughness as a thinker.

    Does Aikin provide an argument for proposition (5) on unconditional submission? If so, is it something like Rachels' argument? The reason I'm asking is that without an argument it's not clear to me why I should take (5) to be true.

    On the question of whether any being can be considered to be worthy of c-worship, rather than actually providing us with a set of properties or criteria that would constitute a being's worthiness of c-worship, Aikin seems to be playing the old Hindu game of neti, neti: not this. not this. I would be nice to have a standard against which to judge worth; otherwise, how would we (or Aikin) know worthiness when we see it? But, then again, perhaps he can get away by simply explaining why certain properties don't confer worthiness.

    Now, as I see it, most Christians worship God for having (or being) these properties: love, holiness, and beauty. If God really does have these properties, it seems like they make or at least contribute to his being worthy of worship. What do you think?

  2. Hi Chris,

    Nice to hear from you, and thank you for the compliment.

    1) Does Aikin offer an argument for (5)?

    Not as far as I can tell, certainly not a formal one. He writes as if it is an obvious truth. To be fair to the guy, this is a short article in a journal intended for a general audience, I'll wait to see what he says in his book.

    To lay my own tentative chips on the table: I think an argument is possible. As I say in the post about Rachels' argument, I reckon an argument could be fashioned out of a formal account of rational agency.

    The argument for the principle of generic consistency, which I've been looking into elsewhere on this blog (and do plan to get back to at some point) has, I think, some of the necessary resources for this.

    The argument would probably look something like this (where "autonomy" is understood to mean "determines one's own rules of conduct, not subject to the authority of another"):

    (a) To be a rational agent is to perform A for purpose P.
    (b) An agent can perform acts for purpose iff they have autonomy (because?...).
    (c) Therefore, autonomy is necessary for rational agency.

    You could then argue that either (i) it is impossible for a human being to deny or repudiate their own rational agency or (ii) rational agency is necessary for morality. Neither of those claims is uncontroversial but they are arguable.

    2) The "Not this, Not this" Approach

    Yes, I agree that this is frustrating. I presume one could avoid this style of argument. I would do so by drawing an analogy between the concept of political obligation and conditional obedience. I would then try to use theories of political obligation to determine whether God is worthy of conditional obedience.

    For example, while there is no agreed-upon theory of political obligation (this is philosophy we're talking about!) one could say "These are all the leading theories of political obligation only these could warrant conditional obedience these; based on these theories God doesn't deserve conditional worship; therefore, God doesn't deserve conditional worship".

    The leading theories of political obligation (based on the Stanford Encyclopedia Article) are (i) consent; (ii) gratitude; (iii) fair play; (iv) membership theory of society; and (iv) natural duty. If it turns out none of these support conditional worship of God, then the conclusion reached in Aikin's article would stand.

    I'm not going to say that theistic worship does or doesn't pass the test proposed, I'm just saying that this is one way to avoid the style of argument to which you object.

    3) Love, Holiness and Beauty

    I think the love criterion might be compelling but could be objected to by appealing to the argument from divine hiddenness. Certainly, Schellenberg's defence of that makes considerable reference to what we expect from a being who loves us and how those conditions are not met by God.

    Your other criteria seem less compelling. I'm not sure what Holiness is and why it warrants worship. And beauty doesn't seem like it could ever warrant conditional obedience. It seems like a category error to be obedient to something that is beautiful.

    I should also say I'm not at all convinced that the characterisation of worship presented in these arguments (i.e. Aikin's and Rachel's) are fair to the religious account of worship. I'd be very interested to hear, if you are a theist, how you might understand the state of worshipfulness.

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for your detailed reply.

    As both a Christian and an aspiring philosopher, it's always good to be confronted with arguments against some of my not-yet-articulated practices. So when confronted with the question, "Why worship God?" one of my responses is "Well, duh, because he's God!" But upon thinking about it further, I realize that worship is a very complex concept.

    Worship involves many things, and it's helpful to distinguish its different aspects. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines it as "the service of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and petition directed toward God through actions and attitudes."

    So worship at least involves:
    (1) Praise
    (2) Adoration
    (3) Thanksgiving
    (4) Petition
    (5) Service (or obedience)

    So the question of what makes God worthy of worship can be directed at each of these five aspects of worship. Perhaps the criteria of love, holiness, and beauty that I gave make more sense with these categories. While maybe it doesn't make sense to be obedient to something that is beautiful, it makes much more sense to adore or praise something that is beautiful. On the same note, one could say that God is worthy of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and perhaps even obedience because he is love, or loving.

    Now, on Schellenberg's argument from divine hiddenness, I'm not sure what we should think. Certainly the religious believer, in the act of worship, believes that she has felt/been the recipient of divine love. God's love isn't hidden to her, and thus she deems God worthy of all aspects of worship. But the person who hasn't experienced God's love sees no reason why God is worthy of worship. Are we obligated to worship only when we perceive God's love, or, if it is really there, are we obligated to worship whether we perceive it or not? (This might not be on the right track.)

    Other than love, what might make God worthy of obedience? I like your proposed analogy to political theory. While I don't know too much about political philosophy, it seems plausible to suppose that the theories of gratitude and natural duty offer some help to understanding an obligation to obey God.

    Additionally, I think that the obligations in the parent/child relationship could be another fruitful analogy. Indeed, perhaps the most natural way for a Christian to respond would be to say that I owe God obedience in virtue of the fact that he has created me.

    Finally (working backwards, I guess), one theistic response to the problem of autonomy could be to simply deny that we are autonomous beings and bite the bullet on rational agency. I take it that this is what Calvinism amounts to. I'll have to think about the other theistic responses and get back to you on the Rachels post later.