The Modified Meager Moral Fruits Argument Against Theism

By R.N. Carmona

A seldom discussed argument in theistic/atheistic circles is Paul Draper’s Meager Moral Fruits Argument Against Theism (MMFA). The reason this argument does not get as much attention as other arguments is unclear, but I will go out on a limb and say that it may have something to do with its source. Not only was the argument offered 25 years ago, but it was put forward as part of a cumulative case Draper presented in his 1997 debate with William Lane Craig. Another factor drawing attention away from the argument is that it was not formulated in premise to conclusion deductive form. The argument is an informal argument and one would therefore, have to do the work of putting it in deductive form. Draper’s argument, like his cumulative case, is probabilistic in nature and as such, the language of a formulated argument has to acknowledge this. A deductive version of Draper’s MMFA will appear tentative. This is not surprising given that he described himself as a practicing agnostic. Atheists might prefer that an argument to be more forceful in its language. That may be yet another factor drawing attention away from the argument.

I think the lack of attention the argument gets is unwarranted, in any case. I also think that a deductive formulation makes clear what Draper was attempting to get at while also making manifest the possible issues the argument has. Prior to putting the argument in deductive form, I will reproduce what Draper said in the aforementioned debate:

The first red bean is the fact that the moral fruits of theistic belief are meager, at best. Any objective observer, if asked whether or not theists are morally superior to non-theists (to atheists and agnostics), will have to admit it’s really too close to call. I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming that theists are morally inferior to atheists and agnostics (Ibid.).

Draper goes on to qualify what he means by arguments attempting to show that theists are morally inferior to non-theists. He talks about how atheists point to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, in addition to citing that a lower percentage of German Christians opposed Hitler than German secular humanists and German leftists who were irreligious. He wants to be clear that his argument differs markedly from such arguments. He states that “if [he’s] right that theists are not noticeably morally superior to the rest of us, then the question is: why is this fact a red bean? Why does this support naturalism over theism? Because on the assumption that theism is true, one has reason to believe that theistic belief would have significant and noticeable moral fruits — that worshiping God would be an abundant source of moral strength. So the absence of such moral fruits is surprising on theism” (Ibid.). Conversely, if naturalism is the case, this is not surprising because given that God does not exist, theistic beliefs would not be expected to improve moral character. With this in mind, we can now turn to a deductive version of Draper’s MMFA:

P1 If theism is true, worshiping God would (probably) produce significant and noticeable moral fruits in theists.

P2 Worshiping God does not produce significant and noticeable moral fruits in theists.

C Therefore, theism is (probably) not true.

I think this deductive formulation is true to Draper’s informal presentation. Furthermore, it sidesteps difficulties that crop up if one were to instead say “if theism is true, theistic belief would (probably) produce significant and noticeable moral fruits in theists.” As Rauser points out: “According to Christian teaching, the demons believe in God too (James 2:19), but demons are not known for their moral fruit (unless we’re talking about stinking durians). So no, Christian should not think that merely believing in God is a sufficient criterion to ensure any increase in moral living” (Rauser, Randall. “What if I stumble? Arguing against Christianity from the lives of Christians”. 7 Aug 2012. Web.). This is not to say that there are not objections one could level against Rauser. If God exists and demons are fallen angels, then it is clear that they do not merely believe in God. Unlike humans, they know God exists seeing as though he created them and they once worshipped in his presence. But I digress.

Worshipping God, devotion to God, or serving God go beyond merely believing in God. There are many nominal Christians in the United States who seldom go to church, read the Bible, pray, fast, and so on. Draper does not have these kind of believers in mind because their belief in God is more like a force of habit rooted in their upbringing or the dominance of Christianity in America. Draper qualifies the kind of theistic belief he is calling into question: a devout kind of theistic belief that engages in worship of God. Paul says of these individuals: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).” Paul stipulates that such Christians meet the following criteria: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24). Paul clearly believed that followers of Jesus, who exhorted his disciples to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), would demonstrate significant and noticeable moral fruits. This is not what we find. Draper’s argument cuts sharply against the arteries of Christian theism, but such considerations can be mapped onto Islam or Judaism as well.

For whatever reason, atheists do not seem drawn to this argument. Perhaps it is because it focuses much too heavily on individual Christians. Even Draper jokes that he was going to include a picture of Jimmy Swaggart crying, but decided not to because it is a low blow. Technically speaking, even if we can establish that the MMFA is a non-fallacious ad hominem, the argument seems to rest on the laurels of personal attacks on this or that believer. To circumvent this issue, I think a modified version of Draper’s argument is needed as a steel man. In fact, I think the modified argument results in what I call a logical handcuff, the proverbial rock and hard place. Theists will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, as they say.

P1 If theism is true, religions established by or inspired by God himself would produce significant and noticeable moral fruits.

P2 Religions established by or inspired by God himself do not produce significant and noticeable moral fruits.

C Therefore, theism is not true.

This Modified Meager Moral Fruits Argument (MMMFA) brings Draper’s observation from the individual to the collective level. It is not just that some Christians have abysmal moral fruits; in other words, it is not enough that some Christians have a proclivity toward immoral behaviors. Joel Olsteen, Cardinal Pell, Jimmy Swaggart, Ravi Zacharias, and the long list of Christian public offenders do not prove anything about theistic belief on their own. Rather, it is the very institution they subscribe to that condones and even enables their behavior. How many people left Lakewood Church after Justin Cauley, a plumber working for the church, discovered a significant amount of money suspected to be the $200,000 in cash and $400,000 in checks that was reported stolen in March of 2014? (Welch, Monique. “$600K theft from Lakewood Church went cold for 7 years. Now, a radio caller reveals he found it in bathroom wall”. Houston Chronicle. 4 Dec 2021.) More importantly, why is it that scandals like this might drive a Christian to leave a specific church but not the church more generally? The MMMFA acknowledges that these behaviors are not peculiar. These are not queer actions committed by a handful of Christians. Whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, the entire institution seems to be consistently embroiled in scandal. More than just an issue at the individual level, this is very much a pervasive problem on the institutional level.

This is even more surprising on theism because the Church, the collective body of Christ’s elect, is the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-23). For over two thousand years, the entire edifice has been committing adultery, as it were. Draper almost landed precisely on this square when he mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and so on. Christianity’s violent history, a means to forcibly publish the Gospel to the nations, is powerful supporting evidence for the MMMFA. The following should be enough not only to indict the entire institution but to prosecute it:

As soon as it was established, the Inquisition instigated a series of harsh measures in an effort to root out Hinduism in the Portuguese-controlled areas. Seven years after arriving in India the Inquisition had destroyed almost all Hindu temples in the Portuguese territory. Edicts were issued ordering all Brahmans to sell their property and leave the territory. Those Hindus left behind were forbidden to perform many of their religious ceremonies and ordered to attend preaching on the Christian doctrine. An edict instructed that all public posts should be reserved for Christians. Orphans (defined as children whose fathers had died but whose Indian mothers were often still living) were seized by the Church and brought up as Christians. In response, Hindus deserted Portuguese India en masse. 

Those who remained were forced to convert to Christianity. In 1550 only one-fifth of Goa’s population had converted, but by 1650 two-thirds were Catholic.

Collingham, E. M. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 64. Print.

Far from being surprising on theism, if any worldview were true, it certainly would not look like this! It would not resort to such drastic measures to spread its influence. The history of Christianity is rife with institutionalized behaviors of this sort. This lends more credence to the MMMFA.

The MMMFA also has a particular advantage over Draper’s version. A Christian cannot take the No True Scotsman route. On Draper’s account, it is enough for a Christian to point out that they bear noticeable moral fruits regardless of what someone like Ravi Zacharias has done. That response just does not work for the MMMFA. A Christian would have to engage in historical revisionism or deny that the problem of meager moral fruits is an institutional issue. This puts their wrists in a tight logical handcuff. If they agree with the MMMFA, it is incumbent on them, if they are truly a moral person, to renounce Christianity. If they object to the argument, they are case in point: they condone or enable the institutional behavior I highlighted. They might as well be complicit when yet another Priest molests a child or when yet another theist philosopher, like Edward Feser or Robert Koons, votes for someone like Donald Trump. That Christians threw their support behind an authoritarian with extreme Far Right views is not a peculiarity. For Christians, this is an instance of history repeating itself. As Draper alluded to, more Christians supported Hitler than not and the anti-Semitism that informed Hitler stemmed from eminent Christian theologians like Pope Leo and Martin Luther (see here).

The institutional evil that sprouts from Christianity can be elaborated on and fill dozens of books. I have not mentioned how Christianity commonly finds itself at the center of prohibitive abortion policies that perpetuate poverty and puts women’s lives at risk. I have not mentioned how Christians resorted to censorship, going as far as destroying texts that did not agree with their beliefs (e.g. the works of Democritus). There are many routes one can take to show the institutionalized behaviors of the Church, generally speaking. Of note, when I speak of the Church, I am not intending to invoke Catholicism. In addition to Catholicism, I very much intend to include Protestant and Orthodox denominations.

Anticipating Objections

1. The Pros of Theism

As Catholics are fond of doing, Christians can point to the good that has been done in the name of Christianity. Catholics, for instance, will talk about the many charities established by the Catholic Church. Related to charitable work, they can mention coat drives, soup kitchens, the hospitals they have built. I acknowledge that a lot of good has come from theism as well. That cannot be glossed over.

However, not only could these deeds have been done despite theism, one can, in the main, question the motives for doing these things. In ethics, there are conversations about why we do the right thing. Is it to make ourselves feel good? Is it to get credit? Is it to gain favor with the person we are doing good toward? In the case of Christian missionaries, are they doing good in order to increase the likelihood that the people receiving their favors accept the Gospel? The Evangelical motive appears to be impure, if not entirely misguided. In fact, there is exegetical support for the conclusion that such acts are done out of self-interest. There are greater rewards in the afterlife for Christians who multiply their talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Moreover, aside from insincere motivations for doing good, Dennett’s words come to mind: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion or no religion at all, does better” (Dennett D. C. Breaking the Spell : Religion As a Natural Phenomenon. Viking 2006.)

2. The Improvement of Institutional Theism

Theists could accuse me of committing a kind of genetic fallacy. They could point out that institutional behavior has improved dramatically. This is true. Christians, for the most part, no longer execute non-Christians. They do not imprison heretics and blacklist entire books. They are certainly not invading foreign countries and putting the torch to non-Christian places of worship.

Of relevance here are the reasons for this improvement. Did the Church outlaw execution of non-Christians by way of edict or mandate? Did the Church ask its members to stop blacklisting books? I think that reasons are much more complex than the erred belief that the Church experienced a dramatic 180 with respect to its imperialist behaviors. Given the United States’ Constitutional emphasis on religious freedom, for instance, a slew of hate crimes against non-Christian places of worship will be prosecuted heavily. Secular laws have acted as a deterrent against the Church’s imperialist agenda. This applies in the UK and Canada as well. I offer that this is not so much a moral improvement, but rather a logical fear of legal repercussions. The Church did not choose to cease acting immorally; it is deterred from committing various immoral acts by laws that have greater jurisdiction over those of the Church. The Muslim World is home to a number of modern theocracies that do not exhibit moral improvement. Would modern Christian theocracies look like Muslim ones? I will not qualify this here, but I can think of no reason to believe that Christian theocracies would be dissimilar to theocracies in the Muslim World.

3. The Corruption of Theism has no bearing on the Existence of God

This is a line of thinking I am all too familiar with. A Christian will engage in tu quoque. In other words, they grant that there is widespread corruption in the Church, but identify this corruption across all human institutions. From corporations to universities to governments, corruption is a sign of human frailty and actually confirmation of core Christian doctrines (e.g. original sin).

This retort, to my mind, is an example of having one’s cake and eating it too. The MMMFA is careful to single out religions that were established or inspired by God himself. In the case of Christianity, God became human, in the person of Jesus Christ, and laid the very foundation of Christian orthodox beliefs. He laid out an entire blueprint and yet, the Church is indistinguishable from corporations, universities, and governments that have been embroiled in scandal. The contention falls on the horns of the argument because these other institutions were not established or inspired by God. The moral fruits of the Church should easily surpass those of the average corporation provided that God exists. The difference between these two institutions should be palpable. That is not what we observe.

4. Philosophical Pedanticism

The theist can very well ask the following question: what do you mean by “institution”? A stronger objection will point to the fact that there is difficultly when distinguishing an institution from the people who subscribe to it. I admit that this is a fair point and that my attempts to distinguish between the people and the institution was painstaking; furthermore, I also recognize that the lines are blurred. I think that actually helps my case notwithstanding.

The relevant question is whether scripture(s) endorses a set of institutional behaviors. Is there, for instance, exegetical support for anti-Semitism in the Bible? Is there a clear biblical position on homosexuality or abortion or non-belief? I think that scripture lends itself to institutional abuse and corruption. This makes for a separate argument against theism, but if God established or inspired these texts, this confusion is surprising on theism. Scripture is not at all clear about where a Christian should stand on various issues or how a Christian should behave. This is how a Christian can deploy the following verse to justify something like the Crusades:

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).

In the end, it is not surprising that an institution is comprised of the general attitudes of the people who adhere to it. It is also not surprising that such a reification is tenuous. It is also not surprising that believers draw authority from religious scripture. This contention, unfortunately, does not qualify as a defeater because the Church, even under the theist’s definition, has engaged in immoral behaviors. Moreover, despite Christians not participating in these behaviors, it was not enough to prompt them to turn their backs on the Church or, at the very least, demonstrate remonstrance toward these behaviors, demanding and pushing for these abuses to end. Pedanticism among respective churches has resulted in x amount of denominations and endless exegetical treatments of various passages; it has also led to infighting that saw some groups of Christians aiming the kind of abuses discussed here at other Christians. Primarily, therefore, the institution we have today, call it the orthodoxy, paved its way by doing violence to its competition, labeling them heretics and blasphemers, destroying their works, and murdering them.

Ultimately, I think the MMMFA is more forceful than Draper’s version and more definitive in its conclusion. As such, it will prove more attractive to atheists and foster more discussion. I do not think the above contentions prove to be decisive defeaters of the MMMFA. The argument still has Christians tightly bound by the wrists. Admitting its strength makes it incumbent on them to renounce their faith. Challenging the argument risks falling in the broad category of Christians who condone and enable the institutional behaviors of the Church. For the atheist, this is either an attractive argument that stands on its own or one that can be included in a cumulative case for naturalism. For the theist, they need a way of challenging the argument that succeeds at cutting the handcuffs. The other option is, figuratively speaking, to serve their sentence; this would require them to admit to the institutional abuses of their religion and renounce it on those grounds. If there were a version of Christianity that could succeed without the bloodshed, abuse of power dynamics, fraud, and so on, we would have it comfortably couched within the annals of human history and still bearing noticeable moral fruits till this day. We do not. This makes the case for theism significantly harder to come by.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Re: The Modified Meager Moral Fruits Argument Against Theism – Biblical Scholarship

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