Saturday, October 9, 2010

Morality without God-How the Virtue of the Nonreligious Surpasses that of the Religious

Can one be moral without religion? Most Christians would say no and in fact they rely heavily upon that argument to both explain the need for religion and also to validate their desire to shape and control the societies in which they live. Now those who would call themselves rationalists, freethinkers or atheists have started to become more vocal in their attack upon the moral validity of religion. Both sides often end up accusing the other of offering nothing of value to issues of morality.

Now I obviously disagree with those who believe religion is the only way to be moral but I’m not willing to go so far as to say that religion cannot lead people to live good, moral lives. What I will say quite confidently is that religion, at its best, gives people bad reasons to do good things. Two people, one religious and one not, can commit the exact same moral act and I would argue that the person who acted based upon their religious convictions did the right thing for a worse reason than the person who needed no religious conviction to commit the same act. The religious person acted because God said it was the right thing to do while the nonreligious person acted simply because it was the right thing to do. The problem I see is that the religious person does not need to examine the act itself but rather is encouraged not to ask unnecessary questions (have faith) as to why they should act in such a way. Neither the context nor the effects of their actions make a difference because they have been told what to do. The nonreligious person, on the other hand, must think about why they should act a certain way. Both the circumstances and consequences of their actions become vital issues in determining what act is, actually the right thing to do. Again both people, the religious and the nonreligious, may end up doing the exact same thing but in the end it is the nonreligious person who does it because of the fact that it truly is the right thing to do and that is far better.

One of Christianity’s favorite analogies for humanity’s relationship with God is that of a parent and a child. We are told God loves us like his children. He cares for us and provides for us. While that may be fine and good it creates a problem with how the Abrahamic God relates to us when it comes to morality. The fact is that this God treats us like children concerning virtue, which limits our ability to be moral agents responsible for making ethical decisions. If one were to ask this God why we should act in a certain way, like a normal child would ask their parent, he would provide one of two answers; the first and most common answer is “because I said so and I know best.” The second and equally important answer is “because I will reward you if you do it and punish you if you don’t.” Now these are answers that are commonly used with little children and for a time they are answers that are okay but eventually they are no longer sufficient if a child is to make true moral choices. For while both reasons can lead a child to act in a virtuous way neither reason enables the child to choose in a virtuous way.

Sadly, the Abrahamic God neither wants us to grow up nor helps us do it. He dilutes the moral actions of those who do as he commands because he encourages blind, thoughtless obedience by stroking our egos, you’re special so do as you’re told and by playing on our greed and fears promising prizes (earthly rewards and heaven) for obedience and threatening punishment (earthly afflictions and hell) for disobedience. Jesus’ ethics are built upon a foundation of reward and punishment. Little more then self-interest is needed to do as Jesus commands though of course one must also actually believe what he promises and threatens. By no means does this signify that Jesus’ ethics are worthless or wrong (though some of them are) but it does denote that the person who does the same thing as Jesus with no need of reward or fear of punishment is a person I would consider far more virtuous and worthy of imitation.

Doing the right thing because one was commanded to do it is good, doing the right thing because one chooses on their own to do it is far better.


  1. Gotta say your interpretation of religious moral choosing is far different from any encounter with moral decision making I have experienced in my short 28 years of Chrisitianity... So I tend to disagree with the underpinning of the discussion based solely on your perception and characterization of Christian thought... which appears to be non-rational... I have never found this to be true scripturally, nor have I found it to be true religiously... but hey we grew up in different places with different systems of thought, even though they were both Christian... So it is not surprising that if this is the way you were taught, to blindly and mindlessly follow rules without thought about what those rules might mean on a a deeper level, and to blindly do that which is "moral" with no compass to determine why said action was in fact "moral" that you would come to this conclusion... ahh.. just my thoughts... no real conclusion on my part.. just my inital thought

  2. not sure I quite follow you at the beginning but I would say that I was not taught to follow God blindly/mindlessly but that is in fact what the Christian system ultimately is. As Christians grow up they are given more and more reasons to try and explain why God commands what he commands but at the end of the day the morality of any given action is based soley upon one thing;God. Do what he says whether you understand it or not and by all means try and come up with as many reasons as possible to explain why God might want that done so you can defend him against those who would act on their own accord. But goodness as defined only by God is arbitray and one's moral compass is of no value expect in again determining, not what action is right but what action God wants you to do. Follow the Christian train of reasoning as deep as you can and it always leads to the same place "because God said so"

    now even if you get past the "do it because I said so" that doesn't move one past the "do it because I'll reward you" part of the piece. Now I don't know if there is such a thing as a selfless act and I do not think that acting out of self-interest is necessarily a bad thing but Christian viture, which likes to think of itself as selfless is far from it and in the end God always promises treats and threatens punishments with his commands making self-preservation as large a part of Christian morality as any philosophical or theological ideas they can come up with.

    now I do not think most believers think about Christian morality this way meaning simply in view of blind obedience and greed/fear but I would argue that when you dig down to the "deepest" level of Christianity that is what you find, a God who is above us and ultimately cannot be questioned but must simply be trusted no matter what he commands. (anti-rational)

  3. perhaps the easier way I could say that is that behind all the philosophy, theology, ethics and morals or Christianity, which are vast and great, you end up with "because God says so" whereas behind all the philosophy, ethics and morals of secularism/atheism you end up with "because it's right." And I think the second one is better.

  4. Zach, just thought I'd throw a comment in here for thought. i follow your blog often and think you bring up some good questions.

    Where does the concept of morality come from? How does an atheist decide what the "right thing to do" is? Doesn't just the mere notion of morality imply that it isn't something we can determine but must be outside of ourselves...something all humans regardless of religious/nonreligious bent must either be in compliance with or not...therefore implying some absolute. The simple fact that we have a concept of what is right and wrong I would argue implies that we understand there is a greater natural law that covers us all...therefore there is good, and there is bad...and regardless of what we as humans are trying to accomplish with them, good and bad remain constant. So if good is always good and bad is always bad then we must ask how there could possibly be some natural law or absolute morality without acknowledging some singular greater power that must have created that order...right? It would be impossible for an atheist to "do good" were there not an established and absolute moral code by which "good" was defined. Because of that...I think that "because God said so" is actually the same reasoning as "because it's the right thing to do".

    What are your thoughts?

    your cousin Brian

  5. Hey Zach,

    Excellent blog posts. You've, as always, left me with much to chew on. And I do appreciate your thoughtful engagement with folks who disagree with you, and the patient care you show in your responses.

    But if I had even a small response it would note something like this.

    The Christian sees right and wrong and asks why it is this way, and the answer they have seems to be that there is a God who made it so.

    The Atheists see right and wrong and ask why and say, in your own words, "because it is right".

    This is, from my limited study of ethics, a vast oversimplification of both perspectives. But you are in the right ballpark with the idea that a secular stance sees ethics as either ex nihilo or ex hominibus rather than ex Divinit.

    However your argument boils down to "I think the second one is better". And against that neither I, nor anyone else, can argue.

    PS. Hope all is well in Korea. How was Ben's wedding?

  6. Thanks for your comments Brian. I just read them and want to let you know that I will respond but I just got to work so it might be awhile also it's a pretty important question and so demands a well thought out answer.

    And Colin good to hear from you. I will get back to you as well. And Ben's wedding was good. A lot different then an American wedding making it very interesting.

  7. for any interested I wrote a new blog post in response to my cousin's question. It's called Is Morality without God Possible? Take a look

  8. Anonymous,

    I have some questions and comments about your post:

    1. You Wrote: “Where does the concept of morality come from?”

    Most, if not all, moral realist believe that moral truths are necessary which means they always exist and don’t come from anywhere.

    2. “How does an atheist decide what the "right thing to do" is?”

    Some atheist believe we have a mental faulty that is responsible for moral deliberation, and the theory they espouse is Ethical Intuitionism (see philosopher Michael Huemer’s book on this). Other philosophers think we come to know what to do through the use of reason and perception. There are a number of other theories but this question poses no real obstacle for the atheist.

    3. “Doesn't just the mere notion of morality imply that it isn't something we can determine but must be outside of ourselves...something all humans regardless of religious/nonreligious bent must either be in compliance with or not...therefore implying some absolute.”

    Yes, moral realists are objectivist.

    4. “So if good is always good and bad is always bad then we must ask how there could possibly be some natural law or absolute morality without acknowledging some singular greater power that must have created that order...right?”

    This doesn’t follow because for the atheist moral truths are necessary truths, so they are not created. You might compare this necessity with mathematical necessity, the mathematical sentence 2+2=4 is necessarily true, and it is not made true by anything. In fact, I don’t know what it would mean to say that mathematical truths are made true. In the same way ethical truths are necessary truths and aren’t made truth by anyone or anything.

    There are some people who believe that there is a world in which mathematical truths exist, they are called Mathematical Platonists. This position is compatible with atheism as well as some form of Ethical Platonism. It is important to remember that the atheist is committed to the non-existence of God, but they can consistently have an elaborate metaphysic.

  9. The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view "the Holy Bible" as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn't you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    "Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament." we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves...not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don't see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form "loving your neighbor as yourself". And I also don't see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library...nor on your child's nightstand.