Whether or not morality requires God is a popular topic of conversation to laymen. It is worth considering arguments given by laymen because philosophers should stay close to real life and try not to drift into armchair abstraction that lacks real world application. Laymen argue about what matters to them based on everyday assumptions and concerns. I will take a look at some arguments given by laymen that morality requires God. In particular, an argument given by Ray Cotton, Marvin Olasky, and Luke Pollard. I will describe their arguments and I will explain why I do not find their arguments to be persuasive.
Ray Cotton’s Arguments
Ray Cotton seems to assume that the only people who would ever think morality without God would be possible would be an atheist, but that is simply false. If I found out that God exists, I still wouldn’t be sure that his existence is the source of intrinsic value (objective value). However, he does present several objections to the belief that morality could exist without God1:
1. Atheism is dangerous.
Cotton tells us that atheism is dangerous. Atheism leads to dictatorships and so forth.2
My objection: There is two problems with this argument. One, the problems that might arise from atheism wouldn’t prove atheists to have false beliefs. Two, no good argument is put forth to make me think that atheism will lead to horrific behavior anymore than religion already does. Fanatical suicide bombers wouldn’t exist without religion, for example.
2. What is ethics without God? Relativism!
Cotton suggests that without God, we would end up creating moral principles because there couldn’t be moral facts separate from our opinions.3 For example, morality could be based on our instincts.
My objection: This argument begs the question. We need to know: Do we need God to have intrinsic value? Cotton seems to just assume it is impossible. However, I believe in intrinsic values, but I don’t think God has to exist for there to be intrinsic values.
3. Morality must come from creation!
I believe that Cotton wants to argue that God made everything, and morality is part of the universe.4
My objection: I agree that if God created everything, then morality would be part of it. However, we should stay away from such armchair abstract concerns when possible. I believe we have no more reason to talk about God creating the universe to explain morality than we need to refer to God creating the universe to explain lightning. We are interested in the everyday causes of morality and lightning, not just the extremely abstract cosmological problem of the beginning of the universe.
4. We couldn’t know how to be moral without God!
Cotton assumes that we have been corrupted somehow through “original sin.” I don’t know what that means. However, he also argues that God is the ultimate source of knowledge, so we couldn’t know much about morality without his help5:
So the question of right or wrong has everything to do with the origin of our belief, not just the substance of it. No matter how sincerely I believe I am right about some moral decision, the true test is in the origin of that belief. And God is the only universal and absolute origin to all morality. (ibid.)
My objection: The problem with this argument is that we seem to know a lot about morality through personal experience, and we seem to know almost nothing about morality from the Bible. Buddhists in China know just as much about morality as Christians despite not reading the Bible. (Most people probably don’t read the Bible, even if they are Christians.) Instead, everyday experiences seem to be enough to know quite a bit about morality. For example, my experience of pain seems to be enough to know that it is wrong to cause people pain.
5. There is no plausible worldview that could explain morality without God.
Theists could possibly explain that morality comes from God, but Cotton only finds one other worldview, which could provide for an explanation of morality without God: Naturalism, which is the view that science can explain everything. Apparently naturalism is the only other worldview worth mentioning, but Cotton assures us that it’s an implausible view, (despite being widely accepted by the experts).
What sort of explanation for morality has been developed by naturalists? An explanation based on evolution:
To these naturalists, all humans are born with a moral sense which becomes a habit of virtue as we practice comradeship and work through our common struggles. It is merely the result of a social instinct born within us. (Ibid.)
Additionally, he argues that naturalism is not plausible because it states that only a material world exists when our minds are not material.6
My objections: There are at least three major problems with his argument:
- Inadequacies with naturalistic explanations must be contrasted with inadequacies with theism and other worldviews. It is quite possible that naturalism is the best worldview, even if it has inadequacies. (All worldviews might have inadequacies.)
- The view that evolution can fully explain morality is merely a rejection of intrinsic value. Again, he begs the question by assuming that naturalists can’t explain intrinsic values. In fact, some naturalists do believe in intrinsic values.
- Not all naturalists reject the existence of mental phenomena. He seems to assume that all naturalists are reductionists and only believe particles are real. That is not the case. Mental and moral elements of reality could be irreducible but emergent parts of the universe that exist when certain material conditions cause them. The brain, for example, seems to cause the mind to exist.
6. What about the Bible?
Cotton asserts that the Bible is an important source of moral knowledge because it comes straight from God.7
My objection: I simply don’t experience the Bible as an important source of moral knowledge. Many people even think the morality found in the Bible is atrocious. Ethical philosophers have always been some of the world’s moral experts and they continue to be. They have generally found that reference to God does not help them provide us with good explanations or arguments.
Marvin Olasky’s Argument
A college professor said that abortion should be legal (and paid by health insurance) because he was an atheist. Therefore, atheists can’t be moral.8
Olasky seems to give nothing more than testimonial evidence that atheists can’t be moral. The college professor admitted that abortion might be wrong (cause too much harm), but it should be legal (and covered by a company health plan) because we don’t know for sure.9 He then seems to think all atheists must think this way, and must allow all sorts of immorality until proven to be wrong.
My objections: I have the following two objections:
- I suppose Olasky could take the professor to be an “expert,” but this would certainly be a fallacious “appeal to authority.” Why? Because the professor is certainly not representative of all atheistic philosophers.
- I highly doubt that any ethical philosopher would have such a simple argument for abortion’s legality. More likely is that Olasky failed to understand the arguments or failed to represent them properly.
Luke Pollard’s Argument
Pollard argues that we experience ourselves as having moral duties, which must ultimately be to God10:
But aren’t we also obligated to [be moral]? We feel guilt when we go against the “good”; if we steal something from a shop, or lie for no good reason. And guilt is only felt when some obligation or duty is broken. So we do, it seems, have a duty to the “good”.
A duty, then, is defined as being held to account for our actions. But surely only a personal being can do that. For instance, I cannot have a duty to, say, a rock, but I can to a human being.
Hence, it would make sense to say that this objective “good” is not only unchangeable, but that he is also personal, because we are obligated to him. This, I believe to be a suitable candidate for the label that is “god”.
In this short article, we have established a choice; on an over-all level morality is either relative or objective. We have to make a decision, but relativism leads to infinite practical problems to the point that it is unworkable. So we chose the view that does appear to work – objectivism.
But we also have a duty to this objective “good”. When we go against it, we feel guilt, which we can only have towards a personal being. So, the “good” is alive, and interactive. We have a personal duty to an objective “good” being, so, it seems that he is deserving of the name “god”. (ibid.)
I don’t quite understand Pollard’s argument. I would think we have duties to other people. When do we have a duty to God but not a duty to anything else?
I suppose Pollard might be referring to the old idea that laws require a lawgiver. If there are moral laws, then someone must make the laws. Well, either that is true, but we might make our own moral laws based on our interest in benefits and harms, or there might not need to be a lawgiver at all. Moral laws are merely requirements that must be met in order to treat people well. What determines if someone is treated properly has more to do with helping them avoid pain or giving them something of intrinsic value, such as happiness or survival.
Pollard seems to transform the word “good” into God because we are taken to be held accountable and given obligations by it. Well, I think pleasure is something good, and I think that is quite relevant to my moral obligations. However, I feel no need to say that God is somehow making the pleasure good, or that God is the good found in pleasure.
Everyday arguments that morality requires God are not persuasive. The most relevant possibility is that God created everything including the moral part of the universe, but this issue is beyond our grasp of reality and is not relevant to our everyday concerns.
I suspect that the most relevant issue to everyday life is the possibility that atheists will be immoral, but I see no reason they would be. I suppose we could suspect that those who don’t believe in intrinsic values might be more immoral than usual, but atheists can believe in intrinsic value.
1 Cotton, Ray. “Morality Apart From God: Is It Possible?” Leadership U. 11 February 2010. <http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/god-ethi.html>.
2 “The U.S.S.R. tried to build an empire on godless atheism, and it failed miserably. Today in Russia we still see the results of the ethics of atheism. You would think that the Russians, having suffered so much under a totalitarian regime, would strive to do the right thing in appreciation for their new freedoms. Many have, but Russia today is torn apart by crime, greed, lawlessness, and immorality. Why? Was it merely too much freedom too soon, or are they still reaping the rewards of the ethics of atheism?” (ibid.) He also said, “If we don’t believe we are created by God, but simply highly evolved animals, and if we believe we have accountability only to society, then there is no end to the depths of depravity that we can go in our search to justify our actions. Corrosion of morals begins in microscopic proportions, but if not checked by a standard beyond ourselves, it will continue until the corrosion wipes away the very foundation of our lives, and we find ourselves sinking in a sea of relativity..” (ibid.)
3 “From the time of the Greeks, there have been many philosophers who have sought to prove that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. There have been many arguments presented to support this position, and in theory they may be right, depending on what one means by the word universal. They would say, all you have to have is a consensus on what is considered right and wrong behavior.” (ibid.)
4 “God is the creator and sustainer of all things [sic]. We would not even be self aware, let alone aware of right and wrong, if God had not created within us His image, and therefore the ability to make moral distinctions. The truth is we have no reference point for all this discussion about morality except as God reveals it. For us to argue with the source of morality is for the clay to argue with the potter.” (ibid.)
5 “The second problem with these arguments is that they fail to recognize the nature of man. If man were not fallen, i.e., not corrupted by sin, we would have limitless potential to create from within ourselves a universal moral code. But, we are a fallen lot, every last one of us, and therefore incapable of fully knowing what is good (Rom. 3:23). We are even incapable of carrying out what we do know to be good (Rom. 7:18-21).” (ibid.)
6 “As Christians, we recognize that man is more than just material; there is a lot more to us than just the physical body. We see this in our ability to mentally stand back and evaluate our lives, our ability to know right from wrong, and our self awareness and personality that make us unique from the rest of God’s creation.” (ibid.)
7 “Because of our Christian perspective, we are interested not just in the physical evidences to the realities of life, but in the metaphysical evidences as well. For example, we have this book called the Holy Bible. It obviously is physical in nature because we can hold it and feel it and read it. But is there valid evidence that this book contains a message from God? Yes, in fact there are countless other books writtAen to affirm that there is, in the pages of the Bible, a metaphysical message from the Creator of the Universe. The historic testimony of the ages confirms to our satisfaction that this book is the very communication from God to us. Can we prove this with scientific experiments? No. But, we have experienced countless testimonies and evidences that this book is more than just physical in its nature.” (ibid.)
8 Olasky, Marvin. “Morality Without God?” Townhall.com. 11 Februrary 2010. <http://townhall.com/columnists/MarvinOlasky/2009/11/11/morality_without_god.>
9 “WSA suggested in his book Moral Skepticisms (2006) that since we don’t know whether abortion is morally wrong, it’s unfair for employers to insist that health plans not pay for abortions.” (ibid.)