Does Morality Require God?
“Morality has an objective rationale in complete independence
of religion. Even if God is dead, it doesn’t really matter.”
-Kai Neilsen, “Ethics Without Religion”
Table of Contents
Is God Required?
Morality Without God
For a vast number of people, morality cannot be fully understood in anything but a religious context. Many, if asked the question “why be moral?”, could not answer without appeal to some religious text, or to the dictates of whatever deity they happen to worship.
In itself, this is neither surprising nor disturbing. After all, religion is a central element in many people’s lives, and it is thus entirely appropriate that it should influence their notions of ethics. What is surprising — and, from the atheist’s perspective, disturbing — is that many of these same people assume that those who do not worship any God therefore cannot have any notion of ethics at all.
This idea — that the only rational foundation for morality is theism — has in turn led to two distinct arguments against atheism. The first is purely accusatory: that atheism, because it has no foundational for morality, is an immoral position. The second is somewhat more complex, and claims that any atheists who are in fact moral must implicitly affirm the existence of God. (The latter argument is part of a type of Christian apologetics known as presuppositionalism.)
This essay will attempt to serve a dual purpose: first, to disprove the notion that the only possible foundation for morality is God, and second to examine some positive theories of morality which in no way hinge on theism.
Is God Required?
In answering the question of whether morality requires God, we must first make some very broad generalizations about morality in general. The first thing which must be noted is that all rational ethics, whether implicitly or otherwise, must derive from some sort of moral theory. That is, if we wish to call one action right and another wrong, we must — if we don’t wish to be arbitrary — be operating on some general notion of what actions (or kinds of actions) are right or wrong. Theistic ethics are no exception to this rule.
The second general point is that every moral theory is finitely reducible in terms of proof. This means that, at some stage, absolutely every theory must rest upon some essential presupposition which, by its nature, cannot itself be proven. It is at this point, however, that there seems to be some controversy, particularly from theistic presuppositionalists.
The reason for this controversy is that the very accusation many of these presuppositionalists level against non-theistic moral theories is that they are finitely reducible — i.e., that, in justifying such theories, we eventually come to a point where no further justification is possible. Hence, my first step will be to show that theistic moral theories, too, cannot be infinitely reduced.
This may be most easily proven by simply examining the two most popular varieties of theistic moral theory, both of which are typically grouped under the label Divine Command Theory. The first variety proposes that the foundation of all morality is the dictates of God — in the case of Christianity, the dictates of Yahweh/Jehoviah, as found in the Bible. The second variety asserts that the nature of God himself forms the standard for morality, in that the moral status of anything may be measured by the degree to which it is like God.
The first variety of the Divine Command Theory is easily shown to be finitely reducible. It asserts that the dictates of God form the basis of morality — but how do they do so? How can it be proven? Naturally, it could only be proven if there was some sense in which we could call those very dictates “good”… but there is no non-arbitrary way to do so, when those dictates are defined as the basis of the very notion of goodness. Hence, this moral theory must be presupposed.
The second variety is really no different in essence, although it may initially appear to be a stronger moral theory than the first. It claims that God’s nature forms the basis of morality — but how can this be proven, when God’s nature could not itself even be called “good” without presupposing that principle? (A brief aside: also relevant here is a classical problem of theistic ethics known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, but, for the sake of brevity, it will not be addressed here.)
Although this only addresses two theistic moral theories, the same principle may be applied to absolutely any of such theories. Theistic moral theories are every bit as finitely reducible as any other moral theory — a point which should, indeed, be nearly self-evident. This means that, in this sense at least, theistic moral theories are not “special”, and hence cannot claim exclusive rights to “rational ethics”.
There is, however, a further point to which presuppositionalists in particular have appealed. Certainly, they grant, all theistic moral theories must ultimately appeal to a presupposition, just as non-theistic ones must — but this presupposition is, ultimately, God. And God, they claim, is the most exalted and transcendent being possible — so, although he must be presupposed, he serves as the only rational presupposition on which moral theories can rely.
Unfortunately, despite the popularity of this kind of thinking, it is demonstrably flawed. First of all, moral theories do not actually rest on God — they do not actually rest on a transcendent super-being. Rather, they rest on belief in God, and the belief in God does not have any special “exalted” status.
Now, the point of all this is not to prove that theistic ethical theories are irrational. The only point is that they are, at the level of their presuppositions, no more or less rational than non-theistic theories. Differently put, there is no really important sense in which theistic theories differ from non-theistic ones, and hence no difference which might be said to make theism the only rational basis for morality. Hence, theism might be a sufficient condition for a consistent moral theory, but cannot be a necessary condition.
Morality Without God
Hopefully, the preceding section has been clear enough to show why moral theories — and hence, morality itself — do not require one to believe in God. Still, such points are fairly abstract, and probably of little concrete meaning to those who have previously equated atheism with amorality.
For that reason, I have dedicated this section to a very brief analysis of some classical non-theistic moral theories. It is important to note, however, that the term here is non-theistic, not atheistic. The following theories do not hinge on disbelief or unbelief in God any more than they hinge in belief, and as such may be consistently accepted by anyone regardless of their position in the matter.
The first, and possibly most famous, of such theories is Utilitarianism. This moral theory hinges on what is called the Principle of Utility, which states that actions are good insofar as they tend to promote the most happiness for the most people, and wrong insofar as they tend to promote the opposite. The fundamental presupposition behind Utilitarianism is therefore hedonism, or the notion that happiness is intrinsically good. It is easy to see how Utilitarianism might serve as a basis for moral behaviour without in any way being concerned with whether or not God exists.
A second non-theistic moral theory is Social Contract Theory. This theory proposes that the basis for morality is in a kind of figurative contract which exists between every member of society and society itself — a kind of “mutual defense” contract. This theory proposes that the best way for a person to ensure his own wellbeing is by being a member of a benevolent society, and that, in turn, a benevolent society can only exist if every person agrees to uphold the laws and goals of society.
A third — and, for the sake of this limited essay, final — theory to be examined is the Categorical Imperative. This is a moral theory which hinges on the notion that one must not act except on the maxim that one’s behavioural principle must be universalized — a very wordy way of saying “don’t do something unless you’re willing to grant that everybody else is allowed to do it, too”. So, murder, for example, would be morally wrong in this theory, for the simple reason that nobody would want to grant that everybody should be allowed to commit murder. After all, if one did grant that, one might very soon find oneself the victim!
Now, every single one of the three theories above, like the theistic ethical theories we have examined, are controversial. Every one of these theories has had powerful arguments levelled against them by various moral philosophers — again, just as theistic theories have — so do not take the above as an attempt to conclusively establish the truth of any theory in particular. I hope, however, that the above has sufficed to show some basic senses in which morality may be grounded in things other than belief in God.
Ultimately, then, this much may be said: that theistic moral theories are no more or less rational than non-theistic ones, in terms of self-consistency. One may just as validly operate on the principle “it is good to promote happiness” as on “it is good to follow the dictates of God”.
One question does seem to remain, though. Why, then, do so many people seem to feel that it is almost self-evident that morality does require God? Why have even famous philosophers felt that, in the words of Francis Bacon, “morality rides the coat-tails of religion”?
The answer, I think, comes merely from social prejudice. We are used to seeing religion as a kind of moral influence in society — despite the fact that history has so often shown religion to operate in exactly the opposite manner. Maybe it ultimately reduces to the fact that most of us can more easily envision being attacked by a group of “secular” street thugs than by, say, a roving gang of psychopathic nuns.
But this, I suppose, is a matter best left to the analyses of social psychologists. The important point, so far as I am concerned, is this: that if my reasoning has been valid, then a person who feels that atheists cannot consistently be moral must base that opinion on something other than a logical examination of the issue. And what can be said of those who are willing to hold that belief in the face of the conclusions of logic? Only, I suppose, that they should be ignored in favour of the rational voices on both sides of the theist/atheist issue.