Thinking about Non-belief: Being Good without a God

There is a prevailing belief that morality is rooted in religious belief and that those without such beliefs have no basis for morality. It is nonsense of course, but because such thinking is so common, it is important that we should examine such claims, and so today I’ll take you on a brief tour of one very common example of this.

The one primary claim, perhaps the most common is what could be termed “Divine Command Theory” – This is the thought that belief has absolute, god given rules (quite literally), and so if you reject belief, then you are simply making up your own ethics and so your morality would then be relative and very arbitrary. The modern high priest of such thinking is C.S Lewis, he presents the Diving Command argument in his book, Mere Christianity, where he suggests that if you don’t embrace a definitive divine moral standard, then any morality you have is relative and very much at the whim of each individual. There is usually a follow-up suggestion that non-believers can then do whatever they like because they get to decide what is and is not moral.

Sigh! … yes indeed, this is obviously true and so we can observe bands of atheists rampaging across the countryside raping and pillaging as they go … except of course we don’t, there is no correlation between non-belief and crime, or for that matter, non-belief and bad behaviour, so it should be obvious that such claims have no factual evidence to verify them.

OK, back to the actual claim itself. What many do not appreciate is that such thinking was debunked a very long time ago by Plato. In the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro there is a scene where Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety and Socrates presents the dilemma. It was presented as the question ‘Is X good because God commands it, or does God command X because it is good?’. In fact a precise translation of that can be rendered as follows:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
—Plato, Euthyphro

Let’s now delve into this a bit to make it fully clear.

The second part is the easy bit, if specific things are indeed wrong and God is simply telling you about these facts, then you don’t need a God, because quite clearly with or without a God, the wrong things remain wrong.

Now for the first part, the alternative option. If specific things are only wrong because a God has decided they are wrong, then does that imply that specific things would be right if God says they are OK, for example slavery or ethnic cleansing? If this was really true, then that would imply that the morality decreed by a god is also relative and quite arbitrary. This is exactly the accusation that believers charge the non-believers with, so apparently what is true for non-belief is also be just as true for belief as well.

“Ah”, say the believers as they frantically try to salvage something here, “God himself is good”. Oh but wait, how does God then get to decide what is good, it would simply be his(or her) opinion, and so it would indeed appear that if you take this approach then either morality is absolute and no god is required, or morality is relative with or without a god.

Now, returning back to the Divine command theory, do believers truly base their ethics upon the bible? Quite clearly they don’t, there is a lot of stuff in there that they have decided (quite rightly) to filter out. For example, the bible from cover to cover is a pro-slavery book, there is not one word in there to suggest that slavery is not such a good idea, yet challenge any believer and ask if slavery is a good idea, and they will (usually) tell you that it is quite wrong. So how do they know that, if their ethics come from Divine Command, then where is the divine command that tells them this? There are also quite a lot of other things they have opted to filter out because it is clearly bullshit, so how on earth did they work all that out? Quite clearly, despite the claims, humans do not get their morality from a religious text, and so with or without belief, through dialogue and reason, our understanding of what is and is not right has evolved and been refined, and will continue to do so. None of it comes via some supernatural entity for which there is not one single jot of evidence.

What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge. If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. – The Science of Good and Evil: Michael Shermer

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