“If you don’t believe in God, then what keeps you from murdering people?”

This has probably been the most persistent question I’ve gotten since deconverting to atheism. The question is, essentially, how can one be a ‘good person’ (or act morally) if there is no deity in which morality inheres. Of course, belief in God, in itself, is not what is being questioned, but whether or not that entity exists. None of the persons I have met would (as far as I know) claim that all persons that are not religious are incapable of acting in morally good ways except by sheer accident. Rather, the question appears to be ‘What other basis for morality can there be except God?’

The question can be rather intimidating. If morality does require a ground for its existence, then how can the atheist maintain any notion of moral responsibility?

Let us first ask what, exactly, is meant by the Christian that claims that morality is founded in God. Plato’s question, featured in the Euthyphro and debated amongst monotheists ever since, marks two prominent ways in which morality and God might relate: Does God proclaim and enact what is good because it is good, or is it good because God proclaims and enacts it as good?

One: Goodness is separate from the decisions and whims of God. There’s still plenty of room for variation here. Did God create the system when he created the world, and then left it alone from then after? This seems to me to be rather strange; how would God create something like morality? What would be the noticeable effects in a world of one morality as opposed to another? Is it even sensible to say that God can create morality as embedded within a world? It doesn’t seem so; one can construct sentences along those lines, but why would one believe such a thing? The Bible doesn’t appear to give any sort of explanation for the metaphysical intricacies of the matter, and what other basis might the Christian claim for believing such a thing? If the world were so, then it seems we’d be unable to know that that is the case.

An appeal to our consciences might be made here, but our consciences are hardly lined up with perfect consistency with the typical, Christian moral code (I say ‘typical’ here because Christianity is a rather large and varied religion, with all sorts of moralities and beliefs and differences on ‘non-essential’ matters within). Another appeal might be to revelation from the Holy Spirit, but then the Christian must account for intelligent, sincere and stable persons who claim revelation from the Spirit and believe the opposite doctrine.

The conclusion that morality is an abstract, metaphysical entity with enough strength and substance to make moral demands upon persons who cannot have any direct experience of it and who would not be able to recognize it in the next bar stool seems to be nothing more than a convenient ‘retreat zone’ in response to philosophical problems with another conception of morality.

The other possibility in this half of the problem is that God did not create morality; it simply exists as a set of necessary truths, much like ‘2+2=4’. If this is the case, then it doesn’t seem that God is needed at all. If we can have a God-less arithmetic, why not a God-less, necessary morality? This view would be subject to the same criticism as above, however. How might we recognize a necessary morality? How might we be justified in believing in such a thing? How might necessary morality interact with individual cultures?

Two: God actively chooses what is good and what is not. This is the antithesis of objective morality. Goodness is subject to the whims of a being who, as ‘revealed in Scripture’, commanded a man to slaughter entire cultures and accompanying ecosystems for their lack of belief (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), who demands the death of homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), and who generates a legal system that appears to be as oppressive against women as any in the ancient world. If an individual takes the Bible as the basis for their view of morality, then the ‘pick-and-choose’ approach to the Bible that is found in nearly everyone of any intelligence would be improper. If it’s good because God says it, then you’d better pay damn close attention to what he says and does, and do likewise. Whereas the previous view seems to be a play of words and ideas, this one is genuinely frightening. Thankfully, very few persons carry it through to its often lethal conclusion.

I’ve been quite broad here; this is a complicated topic that has had a slew of paper and ink thrown at it. But in light of these two possibilities for a ground of Christian morality, I’m quite comfortable with rejecting the idea that something is needed to ‘ground’ morality. While the rules might be different, the atheist game and the Christian game doesn’t look all that different. There’s a right way to play and a wrong way to play. I’d much rather play according to a set of rules that can change when they need to.

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Comment by Jaume on May 27, 2010 at 1:42pm
Let's share the workload equitably: you write the book, I sell it.
Comment by Jaume on May 27, 2010 at 10:42am
@John: I don't believe we really "think" about our choices to be altruistic.

Neither did I, on the contrary I pointed out it could be a semi-conscious or unconscious process. Or, "you don't have to fully realize it [i.e., the benefits of your own altruistic behavior to yourself] every time you point someone to their destination."

I just do it because it is making me feel good.

Then we're back to my original point: self-interest, i.e., "[a]nything that keeps you alive or enhance your well-being." I can't see why feeling good for behaving altruistically shouldn't be part of it.

We may have different ways to explain it, but I believe our views are basically identical. The main difference is that I think our model of ethics has roots in our own nature, while to you it's more a post-hoc rationalization. Not a real contradiction, more like different points of view.
Comment by Jaume on May 27, 2010 at 1:25am
@John: I don't like Rand either, but I note Rand herself used to qualify the kind of self-interest she was interested in as 'rational' and/or 'enlightened'. If self-interest was always driven by logic as you seem to suggest, would these qualifiers be necessary?

@Christopher: there's a difference between selfishness and self-interest in my book. My view is that, in social species, self-interest and altruism generally (I don't say always) go hand-in-hand. Altruism develops as an evolutionary trait common to the species, and it's more often than not in the self-interest of individuals of this species to show altruistic behavior to each other (or we'd all be psychopaths.) And one doesn't have to consciously realize that, but I believe most of us will behave altruistically as long as the sacrifice it requires from themselves is less than the benefit it brings to the community, when it ultimately serves the average individual's self-interest. Clear as mud? Then let me explain this last point with an example:

When you meet a lost stranger in the street and they ask you for directions, you'll likely sacrifice a minute of your time so they don't lose an hour of theirs. You don't expect an immediate reward for this behavior, but you expect others to behave the same to you if the need ever arises, which may actually never happen. But ultimately, it's in your self-interest, as an individual and from a statistical point of view, to behave like that; however you don't have to fully realize it every time you point someone to their destination.

In that light, you could (to an extent) say that self-interest (not selfishness) is to the individual what altruism is to the species. And I think this is as good and solid a basis for the golden rule you'll ever find.
Comment by Christopher Berman on May 26, 2010 at 6:40pm
@Loren: Those commitments appear to work together in a way that makes a consistent morality; certainly not a bad system to submit to the theist who claims that morality is impossible without God. I would ask, though, what gives us the right/power to claim that others are also morally obligated. If, for example, a person does not have the desire to make the world better rather than worse, and is in a situation such that a morally wrong action might produce for that individual great gain without any threat of reciprocity/revenge/legal ramifications, what can we then say? That that person is a psychopath for not possessing what most normal persons do (that is, a conscience which inclines one toward good actions)? Or must we simply acknowledge the legitimacy of that individual's morally wrong decision (which seems to me to be too great a sacrifice)?

@John: Ethics is more than just a model for understanding our social relations to other persons; even the most basic ethical system makes claims of obligation. I daresay ethics without obligation is impossible. Obligation is more than a simple understanding.

@Jaume: Are you suggesting, by the last two sentences in your most recent reply, that an ethics of selfishness will suffice? I'm not at all against this, having read and enjoyed Rand and Nietzsche, but I do wonder if this does not run into the same concern I mentioned above toward Loren: what of the individual in a situation who stands to receive great gain at another person's great cost, and knows that she can get away with it with no repercussions? For example, suppose a person knows that, by killing an innocent homeless person in such a way, that she will receive a great sum of money (from someone who wanted that homeless person dead, I suppose), and that she will get away with it? An ethical system that cannot declare such an act evil must be lacking.
Comment by Jaume on May 26, 2010 at 5:58pm
John D: Self interest implies that I contemplate logically what I want to do and then I do it.

Then my definition of self-interest is just broader than yours. To me self-interest can involve semi-conscious (or even unconscious) processes as well as logical contemplation. Anything that keeps you alive or enhance your well-being.
Comment by Loren Miller on May 26, 2010 at 4:06pm
Time for a variation on this theme:

Delusions are often functional. A mother's opinions about her children's beauty, intelligence, goodness, et cetera ad nauseam, keep her from drowning them at birth.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
Comment by Jaume on May 26, 2010 at 3:53pm
boil all the parts of decision making down and all you are left with is your desire.

I'd say 'self-interest' instead of 'desire'. And more often than not, the self-interest of social animals is to go along well with members of their own species, either consciously or unconsciously. That's why you usually don't kill people, even when you desire to do so.
Comment by Loren Miller on May 26, 2010 at 2:04pm
Re: "When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook," yes, Star Trek - The Next Generation, first year. The characters were still sifting themselves out and the writing was awkward in too many places, but occasionally brilliant, as with that quote.

As for what keeps me from going postal, it's a combination of ingredients (not unlike a doctor's prescription):

  • The knowledge that I neither live nor act in a vacuum
  • The parallel acknowledgment that, while social action and a physics lab are hardly equivalent, that every action may have an equal or unequal and opposite reaction, depending on the circumstances
  • A desire to live amiably with my fellow man (it's SO much easier!), and finally
  • A personal motivation to make things BETTER, not worse ... 'cuz I like the idea of it if for no other reason.

I don't need a bible to tell me that if I treat people decently, they will on most if not all occasions return the favor, any more than I need it to know that if I act out irrationally, there's a fair chance that I'll pay for my actions, sooner or later. Most theists have the problem of being unaware of the bible-colored glasses they see the world through, and you can't remove something you're unaware that you are indeed wearing.

Their disadvantage, not mine.
Comment by Christopher Berman on May 26, 2010 at 1:08pm
Blog system won't let me reply to you individually, so I'll have to do it this way.

@Loren: I like that quote. Star Trek, yes?

@Jaume: Very true. I imagine a deflection of the form 'They were ignorant in the past, but now we properly understand God's moral will' would occur at that point. But this posits a very 'hands-off' kind of God, when most Christians want to talk about a 'hands-on' kind of God. There's inconsistencies here, all throughout. I think it becomes a sort of appeal to the authority of the group; because so many of them believe, most of them don't feel a need to question to incongruities of their beliefs.

@John: I agree with the first portion of your post, but the second portion is not sufficient. If the only reason you do not kill someone is because you do not have the desire, then what if you, or someone else, does have the desire? If a person acts on her desire to rape a small child, we still want to say that is wrong. Fulfillment of desire does not justify at all times. That said, I think you're right to emphasize our evolution as social animals, and that as a ground to act according to society.
Comment by Loren Miller on May 26, 2010 at 10:21am
When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?
-- Cmdr. William T. Riker


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