Do we need God to dictate our morality?
Over at Spread Rationality I stumbled upon a post titled “Morality Without God” authored by Kemal Eren. Kemal discusses how morality is a feature that was developed because of biological evolutionary reasons as well as cultural evolution. Many scientists are proponents of this idea, including Richard Dawkins (of course, of course).

I really wanted to add some comments on this post, which, as interesting as it is in taking on the subject of evolution-derived morals, I think it left out a couple of important issues. Since comments were disabled for that post, I decided to write one myself.

Instead of defending an evolutionary approach to morals (where Kemal does a pretty good job), I would like to take a different approach and discuss how God and/or religion could never provide us with the moral standards we currently have -and which are of course continuously evolving. So I will take on the three main arguments that religious people like to proudly present in this matter.
  1. Abraham Sacrifice Most such arguments implicitly (or explicitly) state that God in whatever form, and the holy scriptures, provide us with a set of moral guidelines that we should follow in order to live a “good” life. But: these scriptures are full of horrible stories of racism, genocides, violence, and many many more. So how are these supposed to be good morals?!?

    For instance, the story that supposedly shows the courage of Abraham and how blind faith is actually rewarded by God: is this terrible story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son of moral value? [Painting by Rembrandt]

    Of course, here, religious apologetics will say that such stories are not supposed to be taken literally. But then, how do you decide which stories should be taken literally and which not? Obviously you still need some objective moral standards to do this. Therefore, saying that these originate from the holy scriptures is simply unreasonable.

  2. The argument of the Ten Commandments (in case of Christianity, similarly for other religions): do we really need God and his Ten commandments to tell us that it is bad to kill someone? That it is bad to steal from someone? That it is bad to lie? I don’t think so…

    Claiming that these commandments assist in sustaining morality and “good” behaviour is a very, very bad thing in my opinion: when someone refrains from stealing or killing just because God said so or just because he will then burn in Hell this is NOT morality! It is simply one of two cases: fear of punishment, which in no case attaches the property of morality to the person in question, or hypocrisy/sucking up to God so that the person is rewarded in the afterlife. It is like some sort of policing in a way…

  3. The argument that Atheists have caused so much more deaths than religious people: this is a big hit! While true in a sense, it is completely irrelevant! For starters, most bad things that ever happened (and still happen) to humanity stemmed from discrimination and dogma -the main manifestation of which is religion. From the crusades, to religious genocides, to the modern day conflicts, such as the Indian-Pakistani conflicts, the middle-east turmoil and so many, many more.

    Atheism, on the contrary, is not a dogma! It is a lack of belief in God! Usually (but not always) this is accompanied by a large dose of rational thinking and skepticism.

    The argument goes by mentioning that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists and, hey, look how many deaths they have caused. Well, lets see why this is not a valid argument.
    • First of all, there is no strong indication that Hitler was an atheist. And if he was, he was certainly using religion to manipulate his followers. For instance in Mein Kampf he says:
      “[...] I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
      Then again he had said a number of atheist-sounding quotes so nothing is conclusive. But the point remains that he did exploit the religious beliefs of his followers in order to motivate and manipulate them.

    • Second, the fact that Stalin was an atheist and performed such atrocities is irrelevant when you consider that he was not acting in the name of atheism! Stalin had his own dogmatic beliefs and tried to impose them. This is irrelevant with atheism and indeed a bit in contrast. Atheism should be about the lack of dogma.

    • Finally, of course conflicts involving Hitler and Stalin would have many more casualties since they took place in the 20th century! The technological advancements have enabled weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated machinery that unfortunately make it so much easier to increase the death tolls than, say, using spears, bows, and swords like in the earliest crusades! What kind of comparison is this?
Personally, and I want to believe this is also true for most of my friends and family, I do not need God or the Ten Commandments to lead a moral life. I am happy that these properties are hard-wired in my brain, and I am even happier that I was able to activate and make good use of them. If someone needs God in order to have morals, then so be it. But please do not tell me that we get our morals from God or the scriptures because this is just absurd!
19 Responses to this post
Of course we do. Otherwise there would be no morals to teach. It is simple actually.
Errr JJ did you read the post??
Evolutionary Psychology explains why you don’t need god for morality. I find most religious people are ignorant about such things. Checkout game theory, prisoner’s dilemma and these books: The moral animal, The origins of virtue
Seth, thanks for the references.

There is large bibliography discussing this issue its true. I completely agree with your statement but I wanted to point out the fallacies in the religious arguments.
Stavros, thanks for liking the article enough to write this follow up. You do a great job of addressing these arguments.

I did not mean for comments to be disabled on my post. They are enabled now. Thanks for the heads up.
6. Jim Schneider
I posted a reply to Kemal’s post recently on spreadrationality.com . It does not address your arguments against these positions. Take a look and see what you think.
Jim I replied in Kemal’s post but I think I would like to repeat some things here.

You say:
The religious aspect, the reference to a higher standard, gives those who hold the morality a reason to follow the morality
Not true: apart from following morality because we are hard-wired to do so and because there is an evolutionary advantage in doing so, there are also many social implications if we are not moral. Plus the majority of atheists are perfectly moral and obviously no God told them how to do this.

You also say:
There is no reason to follow the impulses evolution has given us if there is no God. Living is neither good nor bad without God, because no action is good or bad without God. If you say “so and so” is good, I will ask you “Why?” And then I will ask you “Why?” and keep on asking. Eventually, when someone would ask me why, I say, because of God. But without God, I don’t know what someone answers. You might say knowledge is good, or science is good, or progress is good. But I say “Why?”
But I think your “Why” questions may well be made even if God exists. When someone asks “why science is good?” what difference does it make if God exists or not? What could possibly be the answer if God existed that is different than in the case where God doesn’t exist?

God doesn’t provide meaning to our lives. We find the meaning in it through various means. In fact God doesn’t provide anything in our lives instead of false hopes, reduced thinking capabilities, and more purposes for conflicts. I would argue that God removes much of the meaning and purpose in our lives because it places more emphasis on the afterlife! Further, it teaches us not to search for answers but rather to attribute everything to him without questioning. So, where is the added meaning? I only see reduced meaning and reduced purpose.
8. Jim Schneider
I replied to your comment on Kemal’s blog, but I would like to answer your arguments, here, too.
Not true: apart from following morality because we are hard-wired to do so and because there is an evolutionary advantage in doing so, there are also many social implications if we are not moral. Plus the majority of atheists are perfectly moral and obviously no God told them how to do this.
The social implications are merely another form of the hard-wired implications. You bring up Glaucon’s challange to Socrates. Glaucon thought we just do things because of shame. I do not say that atheists are amoral. I merely say that morality doesnt exist if they are right. If I am right, they can be “moral.” Morality is not: “God says THOU SHALT NOT KILL” and killing is wrong. This is rule based morality, and I disagree with it philosophically. Morality is achieving the end to which we were made. In other words, virtue based morality.

We toss around words like morality and good and bad, but the Enlightenment destroyed the true sense of these words because the Enlightenment tried and FAILED to create an objective morality founded upon reason alone, ie without God.

I use the words “good” and “bad” very specifically. I also use the word morality very precisely. Sure, everyone has a code of ethics (s)he works under. But this does not mean there is any meaningful rational behind it. Many people act in order to gain pleasure. In this code of ethics, pleasure is the end. Things which gain this end are “good.” Things which detract are “bad.” Let’s say its pleasurable to do something which is typically considered immoral, such as killing. Let’s also say that killing gets a prison sentence which is not pleasurable, so no one kills anyone else. Well, this is swell. Until someone becomes powerful enough to kill and not have to worry about getting thrown in jail (it happens all the time. Some might point to Iraq, or to World War II). What makes killing “bad” here is the punishment that society places on it. But people can and do become stronger than the society in which they live. Hence my point about Nietzsche. If I, under this premise, can become powerful enough, I can do whatever it is want to do. because this morality no longer applies to me. Hence, the “morality” is contingent. In fact, under this morality, I have every “reason” to get as strong as possible to be able to do whatever I want to do.

Now, I am fully aware that a contingent morality is possible. It’s just not very desirable from my standpoint, because it fails to give a reason why (pick your evil villain) was bad. In fact, no one is actually bad or good. Everyone is just programmed chemically to act in certain ways. There is no real free choice. No merit. No love. No good. No bad. Which is all fine and dandy.
I would argue that God removes much of the meaning and purpose in our lives because it places more emphasis on the afterlife! Further, it teaches us not to search for answers but rather to attribute everything to him without questioning. So, where is the added meaning? I only see reduced meaning and reduced purpose.
I do not understand. I place a whole lot of emphasis on this life, because this is where I become, or dont become, a virtuous, good person. This life decides my fate for eternity. I would say that is rather meaningful. It’s certainly more meaningful than my love for my mom being simply a certain bunch of chemical reactions conditioned by society and evolution. It’s certainly more meaningful than if i had no control over anything because I don’t really make choices, unless you define making choices having chemical reactions shoot through your brain, much like a cow. That is all rather depressing to me. But I guess we always want to have our cake and to have eaten it, too.

I question many things. I am questioning you. I also constantly question myself. I try to rigorously study those who disagree. And I change my beliefs according to new information I receive. This is part of being religious in the true sense of it.
9. Jim Schneider
Sorry, my html tagging leaves much to be desired. This paragraph should have been quoted:

“Not true: apart from following morality because we are hard-wired to do so and because there is an evolutionary advantage in doing so, there are also many social implications if we are not moral. Plus the majority of atheists are perfectly moral and obviously no God told them how to do this. ”

As well as this one:
“I would argue that God removes much of the meaning and purpose in our lives because it places more emphasis on the afterlife! Further, it teaches us not to search for answers but rather to attribute everything to him without questioning. So, where is the added meaning? I only see reduced meaning and reduced purpose. ”

Sorry
Jim thanks for the comment. And fair enough on the social implicaionts being *partly* another aspect of our hard wiring. But:
Everyone is just programmed chemically to act in certain ways. There is no real free choice. No merit. No love. No good. No bad.
The fact that everything in our brains is ultimately chemical reactions does not remove our ability to think, make our choices, and have feelings. The chemical reactions are simply the “method”, the mechanism if you like. And genetics provide only inclinations, there are numerous factors that ultimately shape our behaviour.

Then, all your arguments about what is good or bad are based on the presumption that there are no absolute standards unless there is a God. I find it pretty obvious that when an action of yours results in the physical or psychological damage of one of your fellow humans (or animals) then this is immoral. I really find that very very simple. You can do whatever pleases you as long as you do not harm other beings. I do not need God to tell me that. And in anycase if God provided the standards why do we need him anymore?
No worries I fixed your comment quotes :-)

Also, I am off to sleep, I will pick it up (if needed) tomorrow again. Thanks for the interesting discussion thus far!
12. Jim Schneider
My question would be, “What exactly is thinking, or having feelings, or making choices?” I do not understand your answer. To me, they seem, without the soul and God, merely chemical processes. Now, their being merely chemical processes would not be a bad thing (since there is no bad without God). “We” would be chemical reactions to environmental stimuli. Free choice seems only possible with a will, and a will requires the soul (if I am thinking correctly, that is).

Removing God from the equation seems to remove formal cause, final cause, and perhaps even efficient cause. All that is left is material cause, which, like I said, would not be bad, because bad doesn’t exist without God.

I agree that I presume removing God removes all absolute standards. Or rather, I should say, removing God removes the only absolute standard that I know. We are left with subjective standards, which are without real value, because there is no reason to hold one over the other. When I become the one who establishes my own standards, my standards have only as much value as I have. Without God, this value is scant at best. It’s at least not the value that I feel I have, and that you seem to feel you have. But, like I said, none of this changes the reality of the situation.

I also find it “pretty obvious” that harming other people is wrong. This is partly why I believe in God. I also believe one can do whatever one wants as long as it does not hurt anyone. I just happen to believe there is almost nothing we do that does not affect others. I believe harming human beings is wrong because they have an immortal soul made in God’s image and likeness. Human beings therefore have substantive value. I believe that this is quite simple, too. I fail, probably through my ignorance, to see why you believe that harming others is wrong.
a will requires the soul
I am not sure how you define “soul” but I would have to say that will requires a consciousness. And consciousness, granted, is not something we understand completely but we are getting to it pretty fast within the fields of neuroscience among others. And consciousness doesn’t come from God. My answer served to explain that despite the mechanism of chemical reactions to respond to stimuli and perform our actions, this is a non deterministic system (so to say): we *do* have choices and will.

I still do not see how God gave you your standards! With what means? The ten commandments? And do you really think that those are the most important “sins”? And do you think that those are significant to send someone to hell? Or that other “sins” are not significant?

I believe harming others is bad because I wouldn’t want others to harm me either (among other reasons of course, respect, friendship etc). You believe that harming others is bad because God told you so. That is not necessarily morality. It is blindingly following “orders”. And this is never a good thing because it makes you vulnerable to other, more dubious “orders” as well.
14. Jim Schneider
As for my definition of the soul, that is the trickiest of questions, and I am not sure I completely understand it myself. I fear your response will center only around this part of my reply. Worse yet, I fear I may be longwinded and still incomplete. But here is the best I have got. I note that my response assumes God’s existence, and therefore the existence of the supernatural. The soul is the animating force in any living being. It is invisible, immaterial, and immortal. It has a beginning. Human souls have consciousness, will, and rationality. It is formed by God, either supernaturally or through the natural processes of the body. The soul’s relation to the body is difficult for me to understand, since we do not understand the working of the mind. I am not sure whether the soul regulates the chemical reactions in the body supernaturally (this would be the case if science were never to understand the working of the mind completely), or if the soul supernaturally reciprocates the workings of the body (which would be the case if science were to find definite physical explanations for all the workings of the mind.) I am sure my definition is lacking, but it’s the best I can do, being a student of ancient Greek and Latin.
I am not sure how it can be a non-deterministic system. The consciousness is caused by chemical reactions. The will then is caused by chemical reactions. I am not sure what control “you” have over this process. You are completely material. Your consciousness is material. Evolution has control. The chemicals have control. The environment has control. But as for “you” or “me,” I don’t see where the choice is. Frankly, I don’t see what you and I actually are, without God.

I never said God gave me my standards. I said, that God allows there to be standards. My belief in the immortality of the soul and my belief in God “give” me my standards. My belief in heaven gives me my standards. Virtues give me my standards. That my standards are in sync with the Ten Commandments may indicate my standards are accurate, but I stress the “may.”

“You believe that harming others is bad because God told you so.” (forgive me my lack of html tags) (actually, I would like to learn how to make do them).

Nope. I believe harming others is bad because I believe others have value and an immortal soul. I do not blindly follow “orders.” (I do not see how I do that.) But, so what if I get my “orders” from God? God, if he exists, doesn’t give bad orders. And if he doesn’t exist, there is no bad. (You’re response, on the other hand, seems to presume God’s non-existence, which is begging the question.) Now, you might interject, how do you know they are from God? Well I don’t “know” that. Which is where reason comes to play. They certainly do not contradict reason.

There are three types of morality. One: rule based. (The ten commandments.) Something is wrong because someone an authority says it’s wrong. Consequence based: (JS. MIll) Something is good because it causes happiness. Third, is virtue based (cf. Aristotle). Something is good insofar as it helps me gain the virtues needed to fulfill my goal in life. I subscribe to the last. God is my goal in life. So, in that sense, I guess God gives me standards.

Basically, to rehash my point again, all I am trying to say either: there is morality, which exists because exists, or there is no morality, and so people just do whatever they want when they want to, whether that means following a fake morality, or just living selfishly because they have realized the meaninglessness of it all. I am not saying my morality is right. Nor am I trying to say my morality even exists. All I want to establish is that religious morality can be internally consistent, and that it can exist. Either Nietzsche (good and bad are merely social constructs) is right, or Aristotle (good and bad exist in man’s pursuit of his telos, or goal). (I follow Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, one of, if the not most important ethical works of the past 60 years.)
I will not take on the issue of the soul because we will never end this discussion! And as much as I enjoy it I feel like we are opening too many boxes here. I will just say what Carl Sagan would probably say here about the soul: “what is the difference of an invisible, immaterial soul with an non-existent soul?”

Evolution has control only over the survival of the strongest genes in the gene pool. What you do individually is totally up to you. Consciousness may be controlled by material means (obviously being part of the brain functionality) but that doesn’t mean everything is predetermined! You use your brain to control the chemical reactions and in turn control your muscles for example. Of course this example is not directly relevant to consciousness but it is relevant to the point that we have control over our actions despite our material form. There are actually a number of physical theories trying to explain consciousness and how it evolved into humans. Such theories might incorporate from neuroscience to Quantum Mechanics!

On the types of morality: as many have argued (successfully to my opinion) there is also evolutionary morality as Kemal also mentioned in his post.

We both agree that there is morality of course. We just disagree on where it comes from. You say your beliefs give you your morality standards but I still fail to see how. You are resorting to supernatural things which makes it extremely difficult to continue this discussion.

PS: for the html thingy: just enclose your quotes into a “blockquote” tag.
16. Jim Schneider
Well, the difference would be, one of truth, and existence (and immortality). But, you are right, such discussion is never ending (I only gave it in response to your request).

As for evolutionary morality, I believe it has been successfully argued, in a way. It just does not fit my definition of morality. Now, it is apparent to me that we are arguing semantics here. What is your definition of morality?

Testing blockquotes:
PS: for the html thingy: just enclose your quotes into a “blockquote” tag.
Jim, I am not sure how to define morality. I think it as some sort of an ethics systems, or a code of conduct.

What I know with a high degree of confidence is this: we cannot get our morals from religion for the following simple reason: religion has been the same for the last 2000 years (in the case of Christianity). However, the moral system has significantly changed even only in the last 200 years! Look at the way some minorities or races or even women were treated only some time ago and look at what happens now. If religion was dictating our morals, this would absolutely not happen! The word of God and the holy scriptures remains the same always. Human morals are constantly evolving regardless of religion and things that were acceptable yesterday are not morally acceptable today. Hence, religion is out of the equation easily.
18. Jim Schneider
religion has been the same for the last 2000 years (in the case of Christianity).
I do not think religion has been the same, My religion has grown organically in it’s pursuit of the truth, shedding beliefs once thought possible but now proven impossible, making concessions to the progress of science, clarifying old doctrine, proclaiming officially “new” doctrines. The core dogmas have stayed the same, but their implications can be better or worse understood over time.

On the other hand, that morality has changed does not mean that it has changed only for the better. Sure, we respect women much more. But that is because our understanding of women and their possibilities has changed. People used to think women were weaker because of their sex, and so they made moral judgements based upon the information they believed they had. We now appreciate more fully the value of women, and so our morality has changed, because morality depends upon the value of people.

Perhaps people don’t get our morals from religion. But perhaps we should (if God exists). Or, conversely, (if God does not exist) perhaps people are pretending to be getting morality from somewhere besides religion, when in reality what they have is a completely arbitrary, irrational, feel-good set of rules, cloaked in a veil of pseudo-reason that each person individually makes up ex nihilo in a desperate attempt to find some sort of meaning in a cold world that lacks such meaning. Pascal’s wager never seemed so brilliant as it does when one is faced with this dichotomy.
I do not think religion has been the same, My religion has grown organically in it’s pursuit of the truth, shedding beliefs once thought possible but now proven impossible, making concessions to the progress of science, clarifying old doctrine, proclaiming officially “new” doctrines.
Jim, you can understand the results but not what actually happens: religion is not progressing per se, it merely concedes defeat in the dawn of advanced science that renders many religious concepts and ideas obsolete! And usually religion will oppose and delay significant scientific advances because it contradicts their belief system (like with evolution currently). This is not progress.

Further, if you for your self, “shed beliefs once though possible” then you are leaving out of your belief system ideas inherent in your religion. I think this just shows that your belief diminishes in the sense that you now believe less things your religion dictates! It is obviously not a matter of implications it is a matter of absolute ideas your religion advocates and which are wrong. And when those ideas are challenged by science there are two ways out: one is to simply deny them (again, evolution currently), the other is to eventually accept them with the consequence of making the idea obsolete. Where is this going to stop?

Regardless of why morality has changed (because of better “understanding” you say) the point remains that it does change constantly and usually for the better, despite of the static nature of religion. And as you admit religious dogma remains the same.

And Pascal’s was not a good wager -in fact it is a terrible one: which God do you choose out of the hundreds? What if God is evil? And if he is good then he will reward your goodness regardless of whether you believed in him or not! Further, Pascal’s belief is not sincere belief.
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