Can Morality Be Grounded Without God?

ssChristians acknowledge that atheists can be moral. In fact, many are fine, upstanding, “good” people. What atheists cannot do is validly ground their morality. Without a source of truth from a divine source – a transcendent source – at best they can make “moral” noises, but what they are expressing is not a genuine assessment of good versus evil, but simply a preference.

In my last post, I argued that a creator God can do what he wishes with his creation – a computer simulation has no right to argue with the programmer, nor does the pot have the right to challenge the potter. A skeptic challenged my claim, saying:

If a computer animation or a pot were to be sentient, it would, indeed, have the right to complain about any mistreatment at the hands of its creator. But, consider this,” he went on. “If your god decides the bible was a big joke (ha-ha) and throws christians into torment, what is your recourse? What consolation do you have? You may not think it much, but if your god does that sort of thing to me, I will at least have the consolation that I did not pronounce it just, that I was simply overpowered by a wicked tyrant. But you, you say he has every right to do whatever he wants with you. It is possible for human judges to overstep and abuse their authority. And they do sometimes use ‘officers of the court’ to facilitate this. That your god might have the power to enforce his whims (of which I, currently, see no evidence) does not negate the fact that, as described, he is unjust. He demands a respect of which he is not truly worthy. I would like to refer to your doctor analogy. The doctor is concerned about what harm the quack may cause his patients. He does not, however, threaten to impose harm himself on those foolish enough to listen to the imposter. With your god, it is quite different. The idols themselves do nothing, good or bad, for their worshippers. They are, after all, mindless stone or wood or what have you. No, the only danger that will come to people will come from what your god does to those who don’t worship him the way he wants them to. All this, of course, is according to the claims of the bible. I do not vouch for the accuracy of the text.”

Perhaps the writer does not realize it, but this response sneaks in moral language which he makes no attempt to ground. Why does a “sentient” being, as opposed to other types of life, have this right? How can he claim that God is a “tyrant” and a “wicked” one at that? I responded by seeking to know the source of the “right” that the skeptic claimed:

And where would that “right” be grounded? If there is no god, then your conclusion that something is unjust is merely a feeling, like being hungry. How could you possibly know what a ‘wicked tyrant’ is if you don’t first have a standard of ‘good’ against which to measure it? Human judges are bound to a higher authority. That’s how you know they have overstepped their bounds. Where is that authority to be found? In your worldview, where can you find limits? Those are simply your feelings, once again. God’s ways are difficult to understand, and each of us risks being mistaken. But your moral indignation is ultimately baseless in a God-less universe. In fact, you are sneaking in a standard, which you wish to attribute to some generalized sense of human decency. But in the end, without transcendent grounding, it remains just an opinion.”

The writer responded:

“But Al, I do have a standard of good against which to measure. It’s based on the fact that causing pleasure is good and causing pain is bad. However, I would like you to consider the fact that for the common christian claim that ‘god is good’ to have any meaning, there must be a standard of good that isn’t based on that god’s whims.”

But of course this doesn’t help. Far from being an objective standard, it is a form of saying: I want what I want and I like what I like. Good is what I say good is. Here was my response:

“I think you need to keep working on that standard. Otherwise, the murderer who causes ‘pleasure’ by killing his grandparents to obtain their wealth would end up being ‘good,’ while the doctor who causes ‘pain’ while administering a cure is ‘bad.’ Your position ends up being circular – good is what I think is good while bad is what I think is bad. God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. You just happen to disagree with what you believe to be his nature, as it does not conform to what you think is right or wrong. That, by the way, is how you know there is a standard there. It is pressing against all of us, and we all to varying degrees are rebelling against him. As C.S. Lewis explained, we all know there is a ‘law’ there (morality) and we all violate it.’

In response, the writer said:

“That murderer may give himself pleasure; but he is causing his grandparents much more pain. This is, of course, unless we are talking about pulling the plug on life support when they are withered away and suffering a fate worse than death.  You say God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. But if it looks… like a duck, and it quacks… like a duck, and it waddles… like a duck, it’s probably not a cow. This looks like christians making excuses for the whims of their god.”

No, what it looks like is someone who doesn’t see the ramifications of his worldview. The murderer, in my example, could be giving pleasure – in the form of wealth – to a dozen people who might stand to inherit. So, does the pleasure of the many outweigh the pain of the one? What if you drug the person first, so he feels no pain? Does that make it “good.” Contrast that with Christianity. Take the protection of life, a timely topic. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God. Consequently, no one has the right to take the life of another, innocent human being. Whether the innocent life is a fetus, and elderly person who “refuses” to die willingly, or a member of a race that another race wants to enslave or destroy, there is no need to analyze who gains pleasure and who is caused pain. This provides a workable, transcendent standard – it was the code upon which much of our law was once based.

In the end, chasing pleasure won’t make for a just society, or for a happy one. Haven’t we learned that by now?

Posted by Al Serrato

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