There are a growing number of books with titles like “Good without God” or “Morality without God.” Why think that the existence of God makes any difference to ethics? To our understanding of value? In fact, don’t we need a standard of value that is independent of God in order to recognize God as good or recognizing that a divine command is authoritative? Some Christian philosophers like Immanuel Kant have claimed that divine commands can only reinforce what we already know to be right or wrong.
There are other sections of this site that address a moral argument for the existence of God. Here we want to stress that there are some bad and some good reasons for thinking that the existence or non-existence of God matters a great deal for everything, including ethics. A bad reason would be to think that ethics can only be valid if backed up by an omnipotent being who will give rewards to those God favors (or do as they are told) and punish those who do not do what God commands. Another reason that seems weak is to claim that one must believe in an all-good, all-powerful God if one is going to lead a good life. It seems even weaker to hold that no one would know anything about good or evil, right or wrong without the Bible.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume (as we actually believe) that atheists and agnostics (or, more generally, those who do not believe in an all-powerful, all-good God) can be just, compassionate, courageous, respectful, and so on. Let us also assume that if God exists in accordance with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), God is not worthy of worship and obedience solely on the basis of power. In such a theology, God would be like an omnipotent Caesar. Rather, the important and relevant matter is whether the fact (if it is one) that we are part of a creation that is sustained by an all good, omnipresent God who has made us for the good and calls all persons to a life of goodness (i.e justice, compassion, etc.) that would include relations between persons and all creatures in the cosmos and communion with the Creator (and, if Christianity is right, in communion with the redeemer Jesus Christ) makes a vital difference to the meaning of our lives, including our ethics. We think the answer is a clear “yes!” If true, this would mean that reality is far more immense in times and space and value than we ordinarily assume. It would mean that wrongful acts are not only wrong because of the harm to a person (for example) but harm to a person who is loved by God and created for the good. It also would mean that there are resources to draw on for the good that can be added to the resources available in a secular worldview. Consider the charge that was made by Albert Camus, the great atheistic existentialist about what we must do (ideally):
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks that take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”
If the God of Abrahamic faith exists, then we are not alone in setting out to do justice and bring happiness into the lives of peoples who have been otherwise poisoned by hate or are the victims of hate.
Our purpose in this entry is not apologetics; that is, we are not trying to convince readers of the actual existence of God or to argue that the belief in the existence of God (in Abrahamic terms) will make Camus’ vision a reality. Presumably, any adherent to high standards of justice (whether religious or secular) knows the obstacles that stand in our paths, and that some of these obstacles can come from well-meaning, but morally flawed sources.
We do want to simply correct the idea that those who believe in God and believe that the existence of God makes a difference (as observant Jews, Christians, and Muslims do) are not appealing to mere divine power and not maintaining that persons cannot be good without believing in God. We do respect philosophers like Nietzsche, who claimed that ethics depends on the actual existence of God: “There are no moral facts”; morality “has truth only if God is the truth–it stands or falls with faith in God.” But Nietzsche does not speak for all atheists. Kai Nielson, an atheist philosopher who has published widely, has claimed (we think rightly) that whether or not theism is true, there is reason to be skeptical of those who claim there is no such thing as being morally right or wrong. Nielson writes:
“It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things as wife-beating an child-abuse to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know of or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil…I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”
Another atheist, Jacques Derrida, who is decidedly non-Christian made the following claim shortly before he died. We cite this not to endorse it, but to convey to readers that if there is a remote chance that he is correct, we should not assume (without reflection) that belief in God (in the Abrahamic tradition) has no moral relevance in a way that deserves our attention (or respect, even if we also feel called to be highly critical of that tradition):
“Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred in humanity. You should not kill. You should be responsible for a crime against the sacredness of man as your neighbor…. Made by God or God made man,…in that sense, the concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.”
We close this entry with two points. First, we note that in the Abrahamic tradition, the scope of ethics is broader than external behavior. This is not exclusive to religious ethics, but we note that belief in a God who will ultimately reveal all secrets makes one’s intentions and desires morally relevant even if they are never acted on. For a slightly amusing (but perhaps scary) look at a person who nursed deeply vengeful thoughts about those he hated (but never acted on them) consider this testimony by Hein, cited by Freud:
“Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies–but not before they have been hanged.”
Second, the Abrahamic faiths have been highly reluctant to hold that claims of private revelation that involves instructions to do illicit acts have any credence. There is, of course, the famous text in Genesis when we read that Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, but there are multiple readings of that text (and other similar passages) that ensure that divine commands are understood in the context of a comprehensive theology of revelation. For material on this, see the work of William Abraham and Divine Discourse by Nicholas Wolterstorff.