Morality with and without a god.

god-necessary-for-moralityThe most common arguments that are often presented to make the claim that you can’t be truly good without a religious belief are as follows:

  • Divine Command: Belief has absolute, god given rules. If you reject god, then you are simply making up your own ethical standard and so your morality would be relative and very arbitrary.
  • Commandments imply there is a commander: Because there are moral commands, somebody must have issued such commands, this would appear to imply that God is real.
  • Moral Motivation: If you don’t believe, then you have no motivation to be good, it is the fear of punishment and promise of reward that preserves our society and keeps people in line.
  • Moral Source: Morals originate from belief systems, the non-believers are simply leveraging this historical fact when they act morally.

Oh well that’s it then, I’m convinced …

… oh wait, no I’m not, so let me explain why and outline the flaws in each of the above.

Divine Command 

A common modern source for the divine command claim is the book, Mere Christianity, by C.S Lewis, and since it is a popular book the claim often comes up. There Lewis argues 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. But is that really true? If, for example, society decided that murder was OK, would that make such a stance true? Quite clearly no, it would still be wrong. It also implies that if non-believers did not make any moral decisions at all about anything, then they would have no morality? Once again this is clearly not true, so morality is obviously not a personal decision. With or without belief, murder causes harm and so it is clearly wrong, not because we personally decide it is, nor because a belief system claims that a god said so, not even because the majority have decided it is, but simply because of the consequence of such an action.

What is also rather interesting about all this is that many do not appreciate that this divine command claim was debunked a very long time ago by Plato. In the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro there is a point where Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the nature of piety and Socrates presents a dilemma as the question:

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 that crystal clear.

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.

What about the alternative option? Well, if specific things are only wrong because a God has decided they are wrong, then that would 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 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 and salvage something here, “God himself is good”. Oh but wait, who then gets to decide that, because that would be circular thinking, god is good simply because god says he is good.

Morality is what it is with or without a god, and popping a god into the mix changes nothing, nor does it establish the claim that belief has a special moral status.

Commands imply there is a Commander

An alternative line of thought is the claim that because we have moral rules, there must be a rule maker, and yes the thinking here is indeed an ethical variation of the Rev Paley’s infamous watchmaker argument. The claim is that without the rule giver there would be no rules, so you must have a rule giver.

OK, let’s think this through. Just as some point at the universe and declare, “God did it”, so you also  have some who point at morality and declare “God did it”. Neither stance can be justified, there is not one jot of evidence that such claims are true. We also have far better explanations for the quite natural evolution of morality, no deity is required to explain it.

There are of course other flaws with this line of argument as well. For example, what obligation do we have to obey rules given by a god, if such an entity existed, and it barked orders at us, what would make such orders moral? And yes, once again we are back into circular thinking where you use the thing you are seeking to prove as the basis for proving it.

Moral Motivation 

The next argument is that non-believers have no reason to be good. The believers apparently are motivated to be good because if they don’t behave then a god will punish them. A secondary claim associated with this stance is the thought that non-believers remain good simply because they were once believers and while they might have abandoned their belief, they have retained the morality generated by that belief.

To some degree it is a rather frightening thought to suggest that people only behave decently due to fear, and that the moment they cease to believe they will be rushing out to commit crimes. The philosopher Voltaire held this view:

I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often. … If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”  – Voltaire (1694, 1778)

The primary problem with such a claim is that there is no evidence to support it, people who do not believe still behave decently. In fact, if you ponder the thought, people behaving decently towards their fellow humans out of pure empathy and respect are quite clearly behaving far more morally then individuals who simply behave because they are afraid of being punished if they don’t.

There was a very interesting study at Berkeley in 2012 where social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous.

There are a couple of  other very interesting observations to make as well.

  • First, cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, did not have belief systems that dictated morals, yet their societies flourished and were quite successful.
  • Secondly, when beliefs do get into the game of moralising, drastically divergent belief systems tend to come up with moral codes that are quite similar. What this tends to suggest is not that we need belief to enable morality to flourish, but instead that when beliefs get into the morality game, they simply reflect the existing morality that would have been there with or without them.

Moral Source 

Now that last one is a nice segway into the final claim. Belief asserts that it has a definitive book of rules that clearly defines an absolute moral standard that never changes, and that for non-believers, morality is simply an opinion.

The most obvious challenge to this assertion is that it is quite obviously not true because the supposed absolute religious standard is no such thing and has in fact evolved and been very heavily filtered. If you consider all the rules that the bible dictates, you soon find numerous examples of biblical rules that have been abandoned. For example, eating shellfish and also wearing clothes made from wool/linen mixes are apparently abominations (Lev11:10 and Deut 22.11), but nobody today would accept that. The rich are also supposed to give away all their money (Mat 19.21), ethnic cleansing is a direct order from god (1 Samuel 15:2-3), and the entire bible from cover to cover is very pro-slavery, and even contains details guidance on how to beat your slave (apparently it is just fine as long as your slave survives the beating).

Quite clearly believers do not treat the bible as a definitive absolute source for all morality, but instead they filter out the bullshit and just keep the good bits, so their morality is not actually rooted within a text that endorses some highly obnoxious and truly immoral standards, but rather comes from outside it.

Ask yourself this, how exactly did the religious work out that slavery was wrong, because clearly that did not come from the pro-slavery text they embrace.

One Final Thought

So how best to wrap all this up? Well, perhaps with the following quote …

To suggest that one can’t be good without belief in God is not just an opinion, a mere curious musing – it is a prejudice. It may even be discrimination” – Greg Epstein: Good without God.

8 thoughts on “Morality with and without a god.”

    • Arnold, you would need to establish a specific causal relationship to be able to claim that non-belief is the motivational cause here and that something cultural is not going on. If your hypothesis were true then …
      – we should see a rise in crime amongst those that do not believe in a god … but we don’t, most in jail are religious, not non-religious
      – the more religious a nation is, then the better the driving should be … but I’ve seen personally a very similar discard for life on the roads in highly religious Nigeria

      What can we conclude except that something specifically cultural and not specifically religious is going on when it comes to driving standards. There is also nothing at all regarding the personal religious beliefs of those drivers.

      There are of course also bigger issues here …
      1) The article simply makes claims and does not cite any evidence to verify that such stories are actually true and are not simply urban legends
      2) Even if one or two cases are indeed true, how common is it? It is still quite possible that most drivers in China would not behave like this and only a few psychopaths would and did
      3) Your assumption is that without a god humans are basically uncaring and evil. This is a religious belief that is in fact highly offensive and also not actually factual. Human empathy is not an attribute that is unique to religious people.
      4) You would also need to explain why the least religious nations (Scandinavian) are also the most peaceful and law abiding, but since that data cofflicts with your evil-human hypothesis, then it would be ignored.

  1. You miss the whole point on the Deist’s take on morality if you sum it up to “can we be good without God?”

    Deist theory is the only way to make morality more than an opinion brought about by the majority. Morality in the secular sense isn’t objective, and right and wrong (itself) becomes what is desired most.

    This isn’t a good ground to argue against deism. That’s like the Deists arguing against evolution- you are arguing against one of the very strongest points “the other side” has in its pocket.

    And it gets the straw man treatment a lot. When we speak of man’s issue with morality, we speak of man’s issue with objective morality (one that exists apart from man’s desires and will)

    • Read it again, Chris. You were the one who missed the whole point.

      “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.

      What about the alternative option? Well, if specific things are only wrong because a God has decided they are wrong, then that would 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 the morality decreed by a god is also relative and quite arbitrary. ”

      //objective morality (one that exists apart from man’s desires and will)

      Once again, your definition of objective is circular. You are putting god inside the definition with this “apart from man”: it should be “apart from sentient beings”.

      • I believe you’re being a bit contradicting Daniel. You’d prefer to say that there is no thing as an objective morality, because how would you propose it is known outside of human (or any Being’s) opinion? In the end, is what is right what is right because you think so Daniel, or is what is right what is right regardless of what you think? If that’s the case, who gets to be the one to determine what is truly right? The majority? If morality doesn’t emerge from “unshifting ground”, than it means nothing more than man’s desire. And if man’s desire puts morality on that “unshifting ground”, it’s still just man’s desire!

        Thus life is not actually better than death, you just desire life more than death. Murder is not actually worse than compassion. We just desire compassion more. Our morality is reduced to electrical impulses of the mind, that just happen and have no reason to be preferred.

        And what if it’s man’s lack of perfect knowledge that causes lack of agreement in God’s morality? “Let’s cut open John” <— Immoral. "Let's cut open John because he needs an opperation to live" <—- Moral. Some questions aren't so clear. If I were to make a creature out of clay, does it have a right to exist in terms of me as the creator vs creature? If I have given my "clay creature" life, than it has the right for other clay creatures I made to not take away what I gave it (life), but if I decided to destroy my creature, am I wrong? Must that creature's desires be considered? Is it ok if the computer program decides what it exists for, or is that up to the creator of the program?

        • Chris, please don’t take this as an insult. It’s not my goal here. I wish you’d take it as a constructive criticism.

          Your inability to comprehend what you read is taking the best out of you. I advise you to read an article two or three times before commenting on it. All your arguments are based on missrepresentations of what was said or by simply ignoring what was said.

          All you said now and in the previous post were already addressed by the article in the snip I had quoted in my previous post.

          Let’s start again.

          Dave presented two different cenarios in the Devine Command Theory, which is where you are stuck. I’ll try to refrase them, so maybe you can get the point.

          In the first cenario, we are assuming that there is objective morality, while in the second cenario, we are assuming that there is a god. Keep in mind these are two cenarios: whatever I say about one cenario doesn’t apply to the other cenarion. And see that I’m not advocating in favor of any cenario. I’m not saying which one is the correct one. I’m not saying what I think about objective morality, because this is not the point.

          Let’s start with the first cenario first. In this cenario, we know there is objective morality. So we have to ask ourselves: in this cenario, does god necessarily exists? The answer is no. Because objective morality is also apart from a god’s opinions. Therefore, objective morality exists independent of whether god exists or not.

          Now let’s go to the second cenario. Now, we know for certain that god exists. Now, the question is: does objective morality necessarily exists? The answer is no. Because a god saying what is right and what is wrong is subjective morality (subjetive to his opinions). This is not different than you or I saying what’s right or what’s wrong. You could argue that god’s opinions are better than ours, but you can’t say that his opinions are objetive.

          So now let’s analyse the implications. 1. Objective morality doesn’t mean god exists and 2. god doesn’t mean objective morality exists. Therefore, the argument of objective morality doesn’t lead to any conclusions. It’s a silly argument.

          I hope you can understand this time, Chris. You can not keep arguing for the existence of god from the existence of objective morality if you don’t address what’s the relationship between god and objective morality and why would his opinions not be considered subjective as all.

          • I did read the article and within my comment I addressed this concern over the term “objective” being free from God’s opinion. This here is just a picking and choosing of definitions between God and Objective. In the definition of “God” we have a being all knowing and all good- so therefore an opinion of a Being like that would be always correct and true- yes? So in terms of this definition of God, all opinions are always right, because they lack in neither goodness, or rationality. It’s like you keep implying that God is as equal constrained to this universe rather than the universe constrained to God, like your definition of this “Being” is off. In this definition, God can have an opinion, and it can/will be objectively true, in the same way I can believe that I am breathing air, and that can be objectively true. Even that example takes God to the restrictions of our universe.

            I was also pointing at the problem man faces in considering objective morality in itself. What could possibly make an “ought to” more than an opinion? Either there are no true “ought to”‘s, or the “ought to” has to come from something higher than man that set out that “ought to” for man in its creation.

            If you created a computer program, and you made it to compress files, would it be right if your program, who had the ability to think for itself, decided not to compress files and told it’s maker “that’s just your opinion.”? Shouldn’t the creator of the thing that was made determine what that thing should be used for? (Before you respond here let me take care of what I think that response will be- other computer programs shouldn’t decide what that program should be for, yet other users may find new use for it. There’s a peer to peer correlation and a peer to higher designer correlation. Both are different scenarios.)

            But to summarize all that, in the end, I find that the statement “God’s opinions aren’t subjective” falls in the very definition of God. For one’s opinions to not be truth or fact, falls in a lack of something (knowledge, goodness, right to make the claim) in which case God does not.

            • It still seems you didn’t read the article enough times though. See the snip below:

              ““Ah”, say the believers as they frantically try and salvage something here, “God himself is good”. Oh but wait, who then gets to decide that, because that would be circular thinking, god is good simply because god says he is good.”

              When you assume god is good and all knowing, you are appealing to the very thing in question as proof of itself. You are putting the conclusion in your premise. That’s why I said early on that you are making a circular reasoning when you say objective is apart from man’s opinion.

              You are still raising questions that are already answered.

              Furthermore, it seems that not only you are a christian, but you also adhere to the idea that says “whatever god says is good”. That gives me the opportunity to set a trap for you. The trap is well-known among christian apologetics, so I hope you are also familiar with it already. It’s based on god commanding the killing of the children of Canaan. William Lane Craig lost all credibility when he said this was a moral thing for god to do.

              As I see it, you have three choices: 1. Ignoring this part of the bible and still saying that whatever god says is moral, which would make you a hypocrite. 2. Saying that this specifice part of the bible is a parabole, or figurative language, which would make you a cherry-picking christian. 3. Or, like Craig, defend the morality of killing children, which would make you an idiot.

              You have a forth option, though: if there is a god, his morality can only be subjetive and we can, and even should, disagree with him.

              The fith option being, of course: there is no god.

              I’m curious to see how you scape this trap.


Leave a Reply