In a recent article, Dennis Prager claims that God is necessary for objective morality, writing the following:
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this. For example, at Oxford University I debated Professor Jonathan Glover, the British philosopher and ethicist, who said: “Dennis started by saying that I hadn’t denied his central contention that if there isn’t a God, there is only subjective morality. And that’s absolutely true.”
And the eminent Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty admitted that for secular liberals such as himself, “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?'”
As an agnostic, I agree with Prager, Jonathan Glover, and Rorty (and, by extension, Nietzsche). God is necessary for the objective grounding of morality. But the statement is tautological. Of course we are cast upon our own resources and wits if no conscious beings of greater intelligence or experience exist beyond ourselves. Of course we have no compass if we have no compass–and no God if we have no God. To have a god is to have a higher being that you follow. Absent the possession of a compass or a god, you must choose your own direction. When our parents die, we no longer consult them. We must act as our own adults. This is Existentialism 101.
But here’s why Prager’s argument for the superiority of God-based moral reasoning falls off the rails: God is necessary for objectively grounding morality, but She is not sufficient. Four other things are needed:
- God must exist and not be hidden or silent. If God exists, and yet a reasonable person cannot establish who She is and whether She is talking, then that person simply cannot act on God’s will. It is unknown. Is genocide, for example, okay? One reads in the Hebrew Bible that it is. The Israelites enter the land of the Canaanites with God’s approval and wipe out whole groups of people; the story of Noah has God wiping out all but eight members of the human race. If the Hebrew Bible is God’s word, then of course genocide, under certain circumstances, is okay, and many claim that the Hebrew Bible is exactly this–God’s word, but no reasonable person knows this. It is an act of faith to believe it. Establishing the claim solely by appeals to reason and evidence is problematic (at best), so our moral opinions about genocide are cast back upon us whether God exists or not because we don’t really know what God has spoken.
- God must speak and we must interpret. This is yet another layer of ambiguity that casts us back on our own inner resources. Even if God speaks and we know that God has spoken, we cannot know that we have interpreted Her words correctly. Absent direct interpretive assistance–I am God and you are to read My book this way–or a Moses-like revelatory mind-meld with the divine, which few have ever claimed, the theist is in the same predicament as the atheist while reading any text, rendering an opinion as to its proper context, meaning, and applicability.
- We must know whether our actions are good in and of themselves. This is a philosophical problem long puzzled over by theologians. Is, for example, homosexuality (if you think it is wrong) wrong because God says it is or because it is objectively wrong? Would it be wrong, in other words, absent God’s declaration in the Bible that it is wrong? Are God’s moral commands arbitrary? If so, then why obey them? If not, then what is the need of appeals to God for establishing objective morality? When God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac, should Abraham have said no?
- We must be clear on our own motives in moral reasoning, and this is difficult. With all the ambiguity surrounding moral reasoning (problems of God’s hiddenness, interpretation, and the objective nature of the good), there is yet one other devilish problem beguiling moral reasoning: can we be quite sure that we’re not rationalizing our morality to suit our own desires? Here’s Prager pinning this problematic tail exclusively on the atheist donkey: “[R]eason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That’s why we have the word “rationalize” — to use reason to argue for what is wrong.” Of course, what Prager fails to add here is that theist reasoning, emphasis, and interpretation are also necessarily colored by biases and desires. As George Orwell puts the problem, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” It is a struggle because objectivity in reasoning is hard; we’re all prone to cognitive dissonances. Objectivity is a universal human problem, not one for the atheist only.
In short, Prager’s hit-job on the problem of atheist morality is theist projection. Reasoning, interpretation, and emphasis are inescapable; nobody gets a free ride on any of these; we are all of us cast upon our own inner resources, and our half-ass “figuring out” is always under the pressures of time. No rest for the wicked.