“If you don’t believe in God, then what keeps you from murdering people?”

This has probably been the most persistent question I’ve gotten since deconverting to atheism. The question is, essentially, how can one be a ‘good person’ (or act morally) if there is no deity in which morality inheres. Of course, belief in God, in itself, is not what is being questioned, but whether or not that entity exists. None of the persons I have met would (as far as I know) claim that all persons that are not religious are incapable of acting in morally good ways except by sheer accident. Rather, the question appears to be ‘What other basis for morality can there be except God?’

The question can be rather intimidating. If morality does require a ground for its existence, then how can the atheist maintain any notion of moral responsibility?

Let us first ask what, exactly, is meant by the Christian that claims that morality is founded in God. Plato’s question, featured in the Euthyphro and debated amongst monotheists ever since, marks two prominent ways in which morality and God might relate: Does God proclaim and enact what is good because it is good, or is it good because God proclaims and enacts it as good?

One: Goodness is separate from the decisions and whims of God. There’s still plenty of room for variation here. Did God create the system when he created the world, and then left it alone from then after? This seems to me to be rather strange; how would God create something like morality? What would be the noticeable effects in a world of one morality as opposed to another? Is it even sensible to say that God can create morality as embedded within a world? It doesn’t seem so; one can construct sentences along those lines, but why would one believe such a thing? The Bible doesn’t appear to give any sort of explanation for the metaphysical intricacies of the matter, and what other basis might the Christian claim for believing such a thing? If the world were so, then it seems we’d be unable to know that that is the case.

An appeal to our consciences might be made here, but our consciences are hardly lined up with perfect consistency with the typical, Christian moral code (I say ‘typical’ here because Christianity is a rather large and varied religion, with all sorts of moralities and beliefs and differences on ‘non-essential’ matters within). Another appeal might be to revelation from the Holy Spirit, but then the Christian must account for intelligent, sincere and stable persons who claim revelation from the Spirit and believe the opposite doctrine.

The conclusion that morality is an abstract, metaphysical entity with enough strength and substance to make moral demands upon persons who cannot have any direct experience of it and who would not be able to recognize it in the next bar stool seems to be nothing more than a convenient ‘retreat zone’ in response to philosophical problems with another conception of morality.

The other possibility in this half of the problem is that God did not create morality; it simply exists as a set of necessary truths, much like ‘2+2=4’. If this is the case, then it doesn’t seem that God is needed at all. If we can have a God-less arithmetic, why not a God-less, necessary morality? This view would be subject to the same criticism as above, however. How might we recognize a necessary morality? How might we be justified in believing in such a thing? How might necessary morality interact with individual cultures?

Two: God actively chooses what is good and what is not. This is the antithesis of objective morality. Goodness is subject to the whims of a being who, as ‘revealed in Scripture’, commanded a man to slaughter entire cultures and accompanying ecosystems for their lack of belief (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), who demands the death of homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), and who generates a legal system that appears to be as oppressive against women as any in the ancient world. If an individual takes the Bible as the basis for their view of morality, then the ‘pick-and-choose’ approach to the Bible that is found in nearly everyone of any intelligence would be improper. If it’s good because God says it, then you’d better pay damn close attention to what he says and does, and do likewise. Whereas the previous view seems to be a play of words and ideas, this one is genuinely frightening. Thankfully, very few persons carry it through to its often lethal conclusion.

I’ve been quite broad here; this is a complicated topic that has had a slew of paper and ink thrown at it. But in light of these two possibilities for a ground of Christian morality, I’m quite comfortable with rejecting the idea that something is needed to ‘ground’ morality. While the rules might be different, the atheist game and the Christian game doesn’t look all that different. There’s a right way to play and a wrong way to play. I’d much rather play according to a set of rules that can change when they need to.

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Comment by Loren Miller on May 26, 2010 at 10:21am
When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?
-- Cmdr. William T. Riker
Comment by Jaume on May 26, 2010 at 9:53am
I’d much rather play according to a set of rules that can change when they need to.

Christians don't like to admit it, but history shows that Christian morals and values too have changed to conform to the zeitgeist. E.g., opposing slavery is often labeled a "Christian value" today, but it wasn't so for most of Christian history. A truly "objective" morality wouldn't have to evolve.

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