Among those who believe in God, I know from experience in discussing such issues on the radio, there are many who think that without such belief no true morality or values are possible. To their way of thinking, God is indispensable to morality.In discussing this with religious traditionalists, I came up with the arguments that I will present below. Though I came up with them on my own, it turns out that arguments akin to this have a long history, going back to Plato.
My reasons for making this argument have nothing to do with whether or not I believe in God (a complex issue that I cannot adequately answer with a yes or a no, and which is beside the point here). My reason, rather, is that I believe that this fallacy interferes with people’s ability to think clearly and productively about what is the good, and about what makes the good good.
BECAUSE GOD SAYS SO
“How can you possibly know what’s right and wrong, what’s good and evil, unless you believe in God?”
To which I respond, how does your believing in God tell you what’s right and wrong?
“Because God tells us what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. That tells us what’s right and wrong.”
To which I respond, how does God’s saying so prove that those rules and injunctions are good?
“Because he is the Almighty God, and Creator of the Universe. He gets to define how things are supposed to be. What He says goes.”
To which I respond, what if this were a universe whose Almight Creator were some kind of monster? What if He had the character of a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein? What if He told us to torture babies? Would His dictates still define what’s right and what’s wrong?
At this point, traditionalists seem to diverge along either of two paths.
One group will respond: “God is God, who are we to judge Him, the Almighty? Whatever God says is good is by definition good.”
To which I respond, if you think that torturing babies would be “good” if God commanded it, then it seems clear that you’re not really talking about the “good” at all. You’re just talking about Power and Authority. And your position is, I will obey whatever the Powerful Authority says, even if He were a monster. And so your belief in God has given you only an ethic of obedience, and has given you no knowledge of morality or the Good.
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OURS IS A RIGHTEOUS GOD
The other group will respond: “But our God is not a monster. Our God is a righteous God. And so we are secure in our morality by following His commandments and injunctions.”
At this point, I choose NOT to respond by going into the question of just how reliably righteous is the God in whom they believe. Such troubling questions are worth discussing –not that the God of the Bible commands His people to torture babies, but He does issue some pretty bloody and genocidal orders– but they are really not germane to the particular question at hand: that question being whether the belief in God is both necessary and sufficient to give one a knowledge of what is good and what is evil. So I respond as though the God of whom they are speaking is not the God that commands the Israelites to put to the sword every man, woman and child in the land of Canaan but only the God who says to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to do justice, i.e. a source of what I’d agree to be wise moral instruction.
So I respond to their claim that their God is a righteous God in this way: Let me grant that your God is a righteous God and not a moral monster. But where did you get the basis for making that judgment? Clearly it cannot be just from God’s own words, or you’d have to declare Him righteous and not a monster even if he commanded us to torture babies. So, if your assessment of God’s goodness has any meaning whatever, that must inescapably mean that you have some notion of the Good that you’ve formed on some other basis than God’s words.
GOD: NEITHER NECESSARY NOR SUFFICIENT FOR MORAL STANDARDS
This proves that believing in God is not necessary for gaining some standards of right and wrong, good and evil. It also proves that believing in God is not sufficient for having such standards.
It turns out, does it not, that the believer in God and the non-believer are both in the same boat when it comes to needing to find a standard of right and wrong, good and evil. If you believe in God, you must either just knuckle under to Authority and Power, OR you must assess whether His nature is Good. To make that assessment, you have to develop some form of moral understanding from some altogether different source, on an altogether different basis. And that’s what the nonbeliever, too, must do.
So it should be no surprise that people who do not believe in God can have a moral perspective with as much vitality and commitment as those who do believe in God.
All that being said, and the logic of it being (I think) irrefutable, I must also share here an experiential piece that complicates the issue. On several occasions in my life, I’ve had what felt like an encounter with something Transcendent that seemed suffused with sacred Goodness. These experiences have definitely had a significant impact on my relationship with Goodness, deepening my commitment, enlisting my passions.
Such experience –of an ineffable transcendent dimension profoundly linked to positive value like goodness and beauty– has been reported by mystics through the ages and across cultures.
So in this sense there does seem to be a connection –a connection that is meaningfully experienced– between a realm that might be called God and the realm of what might be called the good. Which raises the question: how does that experiential connection relate to those logical arguments demonstrating that believing in an Almighty Creator of the Universe does not suffice, and is not required, to supply one with an understanding of good and evil, right and wrong?
A part of an answer that comes to me is that the mystical vision comes as a mystery, leaving its repicipient to figure out just what kind of epistemological status to give so personal and unreplicatable an experience, and to figure out how that mystery fits into the other realities one experiences. It also leaves the recipient to figure out how to translate the ineffable sense of the sacred into the realm of human values.
The Goodness of the transcendent Oneness that is experienced by the mystics does not present itself in the form of the kind of codification of rules of moral conduct that the biblical traditionalists regard as “God’s word.” As a result, the mystical vision does not claim to replace the need for people to come to some moral understanding on a basis other than itself.
So my point, in putting the logical and the mystical together, is NOT that our experience of the Sacred is irrelevant to our moral understanding. Indeed, at many points here on NSB I have argued that the lack of deep connection with the sacred well is what has weakened those who oppose this evil regime, and has cut the opposition off from the prophetic fire that is the force with which this regime can best be defeated.
My point, rather, is that nothing that human beings are given from that sacred well eliminates the need for us to think the moral questions through for ourselves. Those whose understanding of the sacred is purely derivative from the experiences of others, or even from the texts that make claims about the revelations given to others, are surely not in a position responsibly to abdicate all reflection on how what has been received comports with other sources of moral knowledge. And those who have experienced the sacred themselves, directly, still have the responsibility to use all their faculties –rational as well as mystical– to work out the implication of the truth as they’ve seen it, and to see how what they have seen fits into the other truths that other human beings have come to.
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