Can there be morality without religion?
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 22:03
Morality without God
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to atheism today comes from moral philosophers who argue that it is impossible to substantiate a belief in an objective morality without an absolute authority like God to back it up. As the widely cited Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once said in his book “Miracles,” “the fact that men have such ideas as ought and ought not at all can be fully explained by irrational and non-moral causes [in the absence of God], then those ideas are an illusion...If naturalism is true, ‘I ought,’ is the same sort of statement as ‘I itch.’”
Ouch. Now, that’s not to say that atheism cannot espouse any code of ethics whatsoever. Were we truly committed to naturalism as Lewis suggests, we could come up with a sort of “moral equation” to tell us what is favorable and what isn’t. Supposing that the ultimate telos of existence is perpetuation of our species for as long as possible, we might posit a Benthamite calculus to understand what is “good.” By this logic, anything that “strengthens the species” would be favorable, which might include such wonderful ethical solutions as sterilizing deemed “unfit to reproduce” (Even Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. thought this was a good idea).
We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, a Christian might suggest that any code of ethics we put forth is totally subjective and baseless; on the other, a purely Darwinian philosophy yields results that any reasonable person would find distasteful. Is the atheist ethicist really on a fool’s errand?
I tend not to think so. First of all, I reject the claim that Christians (or any spiritually-inclined people) can lay exclusive claim to universal moral truths. Socrates tackles this problem in his dialogue with Euthyphro: “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?” Let’s suppose that the latter supposition is true: God condemns murder because murder is inherently bad. If murder was inherently bad to begin with, then God saying so had little bearing on murder’s negative moral quality. If the former supposition is true and murder is only bad because God says so, then what’s to stop God from changing his mind? One might suggest that such a question is beside the point because it goes against God’s very nature, but even God commanded Abraham to kill his own son as a test of faith (His last minute change of heart notwithstanding). And in fact, religious violence is often justified by people claiming to be listening to the word of God.
The Euthyphro dilemma remains unfortunately unresolved.
Moreover, moral philosophers for years have been trying to construct workable secular moral philosophies. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals respectively argue for sentiment and reason as individual moral guideposts. Both philosophers are certainly open to criticism-Smith’s theory can easily be criticized as too subjective because it relies upon “felt” moral truths, and Kant’s can equally be attacked for relying upon “pure reason” as a metaphysic that effectively replaces God in spite of being just as difficult to prove.
Nevertheless, both theories make important contributions to secular moral thought. On a fundamental level, we generally do feel bad about hurting other people (as Smith argues) and the “golden rule” espoused by spiritual philosophers proves just as workable without God (as Kant argues). We have never come up with a perfect form of ethics, but these philosophers at least provide us a framework in which to work. Moreover, contemporary secular moral philosophers (such as John Rawls) have clearly illustrated that we can understand proscriptive moral behavior outside of Darwinian and utilitarian ideology. Ethics are meant to engage us in a conversation about the good, and atheists most definitely have a seat at that table.
Bub is a junior majoring in English, political science and history.
God before morality
While I strongly believe that those who do not love God are missing out on immeasurable joy and interaction with the Holy Spirit, there are other more tangible benefits to the existence of God with which many can agree regardless of one’s belief or disbelief in an all-powerful and loving deity.
What I have in mind is morality. All people operate on some conception of what is right and wrong, both personally and communally. Even those who do not believe in morality at all are operating on a moral system, namely that there is no moral system – all morality is illusory.
Thankfully, the number of people who do not believe in any morality at all is small.
What are all of these systems of morality based upon? Every person is going to claim that morality is based on something different. Some will say tradition, some will say culture, and some will say God.
However, with the Enlightenment’s challenge of the Church establishment, God was removed from the moral picture, or at least relegated to a minor role and reason took God’s place as the supreme “ground” upon which morality is based.
The optimistic air of the Enlightenment lent itself to the creation of systems of morality based upon reason alone. While there was little acknowledgment of God’s role in the world (at most a minor nod), reason was deified as a transcendent mechanism for discerning the truths of the world.