Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morality: No God Necessary

Anti-atheist folk love to suggest that atheists have no basis for morality. It's a tired, malicious and incorrect argument that claims: If you don't believe in God then you have no objective standard for morality. You make morality a mere matter of opinion or preference. If you want to kill someone because you consider her or him your inferior, there is no moral standard that would lead you to the conclusion that you should not kill.

The anti-atheist argument on morality usually gets formulated as I have expressed above, with little deviation. For example, we get this from Dennis Prager:
Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), "good" and "evil" are subjective opinions, not objective realities.

In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" ("Do not kill" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral "facts" if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.
And someone at Uncommon Descent recently produced this gem:
[H]ere’s a simple thought experiment for any of the materialists (or philosophical naturalists, or atheists) among our number here at Uncommon Descent. Perhaps this simple thought experiment can bring some clarity to moral questions from a materialist persepctive.

Here goes: You’re in a large city and walk up to a a busy street corner. Heavy traffic is whizzing by in both directions on the street you need to cross. As you prepare to cross, you notice next to you a smallish, frail, elderly woman, carrying some shopping bags, who also needs to cross the street, but is quite obviously nervous and frightened of the attempt. You now have 3 options: 1) you can ignore her completely and just go about your business; 2)you can push her into the traffic; 3) you can assist her to get safely across the street. The moral question is, what is the right thing to do and why is it the right thing to do (that is to say, how can we know that is the right thing to do)?
If you read the comments in the thread from which this quote comes, you'll see that the main thing the person wants to know is "how we can know" what is "in fact the right thing to do."

A few elements stand out to me in this reasoning.
(1) The 'how can we know' part is rather pathetic, as if we need to have worked out our philosophies of right and wrong behavior before we can make any decisions at all. Yet we very often act upon decisions without knowing whether they are right or fully right. Indeed, too often several options have varying degrees of rightness. The 'how can we know' meme is a dodge, an unnecessary rabbit trail that could be pushed out endlessly - well, how can we know that we know?

(2) It is baldly ridiculous to imply that a written law, whether it be a holy book or national legal code, imparts knowledge of what the right thing to do is. Statutes tells us what to do or not to do. They indicate moral thinking, but they don't define or contain it. Just imagine for a moment what the world would be like if Iranian law were equivalent to morality, or Russian law, or Mormon law. But in the end, we cannot know what is the right thing to do from a holy book or from a sense of having a divine judge watching over our thoughts and deeds. To know implies a level of certainty that we rarely can achieve when it comes to morality.

(3) It's even more ridiculous to posit that virtually any moral choice one might make in a given situation is "in fact" the right thing to do. What's a fact is that people can always devise choices. Moral decisions are about reasoning and strategy, not illusory facts.

Theists have a hard time grasping that appealing to God is not the same as appealing to an objective standard of morality. The appeal is always subjective. The timeless, unchanging morality of God depends on whether one is a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian or a whatever. It depends on when in history you live. It depends on your personal sense of values, perhaps shared with the larger culture in which you live. It hardly takes any thought at all to realize that as a practical matter, objective morality is meaningless. It's purely a rhetorical term.

Atheist hero P.Z. Myers has a thoughtful, devastating response to the charge that we cannot be good without God. He says:
There is morality in my 'worldview'; don't confuse the fact that I state baldly that there is no external non-human intelligent agent that imposes morality on me with an absence of moral thought. I derive my sense of what is right and wrong from intrinsic properties such as empathy and other social impulses, and from acculturation in a stable, successful society that has expectations of parents to introduce their children to what constitutes reasonable behavior. I also derive it rationally from what I can see as a robust strategy for long term security and happiness within my culture — that is, robbing banks has a very poor long term return on the effort.

So, I do believe in right and wrong. It's just not handed down from a magical sky-lawyer.
Myers says so succinctly and eloquently what I am trying to offer as my main point: Theistic belief in right and wrong is no better than atheist belief in right and wrong. Furthermore, I am skeptical that idea of God itself plays any role in the everyday goodness most people show. Not only do we not need God to be good, but we also already don't use God in our quotidian moral reasoning and judgments.

Practically speaking, we are all atheists.


  1. The issue of objective morality is a red herring and an appeal to consequences. Suppose that theists are right, and without God there is no objective morality. So what? Just because people don’t like uncertainty doesn’t mean that there really is such a thing as an objective morality. Once we acknowledge that there doesn’t actually have to be an objective morality, we can turn the argument around and say, “There is no objective morality, and God doesn’t exist.”

    Anyway, our innate sense of right and wrong seems to have a biological basis in the way our brains are wired. Everything else is social constructs and subject to change depending on time and place.

    It seems to really bother people to think that their conceptions of right and wrong might not reflect an objective reality.

  2. I think I'd go a little further. Suppose there were a God who told people they were prohibited from eating shellfish. I would say that this God had no right to prohibit any behavior of ours, or at least I would like to know by what authority this God claimed to have rights to dictate our behavior or to punish/reward us for it.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.