Is God Necessary for Morality?

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 interpretThis 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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Is God Necessary for Morality?

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    God is absolutely not necessary for objectively grounded morality. Our morality is firmly grounded in our nature, which is to live as social animals, and the basis of it is reciprocity. Religious precepts merely codify it into a set of rules that are open to rationalization in a much more direct way than implicit ones. Remember that precept to follow your conscience?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Some don’t have a conscience, so I don’t share your view that morality can be objective. I think it is always going to be subjective and individual (absent God talking). Your own pointing to evolution illustrates this, for you are not taking into account the fact that Nature has produced both the go-it-alone shark and the cooperative hippie-bonobo. While it is true that our human species has a survival strategy in general more akin to the bonobo than the shark, it is also true that there is great diversity in human survival strategies, from Gandhi on the bonobo side to the psychopath on the shark side.

      Psychologists estimate that one of every 100 males is a psychopath (and one of every 20 males in the US prison system is a psychopath). Nature has clearly found survival value in the psychopath strategy for existence (as well as its lesser variants, such as selfishness and aggression) and selects for it at some level. This has to be confronted. Nature is amoral and rewards whatever works. Therefore, we can’t ground our species’ moral and cooperative impulses as “objectively good” based on what nature does, much as we might like to. The best we can say is that, with or without religion, the majority of us are happy not to be wolves to one another, trying to devour each other on sight. We generally prefer cooperating and call it good.

      • Mikels Skele says:

        Granted, but divine morality has no effect on psychopaths either, so that argument won’t wash.

      • donjindra says:

        Even if 1% of males are psychopaths (a dubious assertion to say the least) it does not contradict an objective natural morality. Some humans are born color blind. That does not contradict the fact that it’s human nature for us to see colors.

      • Hmmm I’d say that divine morality had a huge effect on Joshua, a psychopath if ever there was one. Even if there is a god, morality is subjective – just because a god doles it out does not mean it is not subjective, just universal.

  2. Staffan says:

    Nice mashup. Somehow Taylor Swift’s wholesomeness comes off as more provocative than Korn’s darker style. A dark attitude is more politically correct. They should change their name to Kale.

    As for morality, I guess the only thing we can do is to team up and fight those psychopaths, whether we are religious or not. But at the same time stay tolerant and reflective regarding moral outgroups rather than to go with the gut which is the innate way of doing it. Like in America right now, conservatives with a sense of responibility should stand up to the Republican shut down of government. No true conservative would behave in that manner. That’s anti-social behavior and should be rejected by – dare I say it? – the moral majority.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’re right, I think, that true conservatives do not blow-up things. The Republican Party is in a death spiral, and is being taken down, not by conservatives, but by “high RWAs” (right-wing authoritarians) bent on disruption and revolution. The Republican Party is becoming, rather alarmingly, a fascist-style party, probably the most radical, irresponsible, and idiotic political party in any contemporary Western democracy. Maybe somewhere in Eastern Europe there is a crazier right-wing party with some degree of power, but I doubt it.

      I hope Obama holds firm and doesn’t give an inch to them because, if he doesn’t hold firm now, they’ll simply come back every few months with similar brinkmanship. At some point over the next few years, they appear determined to take both the American and global economy over a cliff. Let it be now, and then let the voters decide who is to blame. It’s the only way it’s going to stop. But what a waste!

      If there ever was a stand-off between sharks and bonobos, it is now. It really is a moral crossroads for America. What kind of country will we be?

  3. The book ‘Right and Reason’ by Austin Fagothey, SJ, provides an excellent explanation of the moral law. I couldn’t possibly summarise his arguments in any short space, but it is a worthwhile read. He demonstrates the existence of the natural law, then proceeds to refute many errors.

    Take care.

  4. donjindra says:

    As you imply, Prager merely shields the fact that “God” provides no absolutes either. And that’s obvious from history. Besides, God as a concept (which is all we have) is not powerful enough to make humans conform. If we didn’t already have a natural predisposition to obey God’s law, almost nobody would do it.

  5. keithnoback says:

    Having now read the article, it is as I feared. The guy really means to say that everyone who is not a realist and objectivist is a non-cognitivist. Perhaps he also would mistake law for morality?

  6. Grundy says:

    Nice post. The way I look at it is that God is necessary for transcendent morality, not objective morality. If right and wrong were clearly defined, then everything could be objectively classified as such.

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