Earlier this semester, as I was teaching my Ethics students about the nature of God, his covenantal actions, and introducing the concept of Christian ethics, I wanted us all to pick our brains about the relationship or lack thereof between God's existence and morality. Keep in mind, I'm using morality as "the categorizing of actions, thoughts, and words into right/wrong and good/bad and noble/evil delineations."
I forced the following writing prompt on them, knowing full well that they, like me, could take it in many directions: "Answer one of the following questions: (A) You need God for morality because.... or (B) You don't need God for morality because..."
And here's my free-write response:
Absolutely you can say "You don't need God for morality", for the simple reason that there are plenty of moral people who are completely secular, atheistic, or agnostic. You do not need to believe in the existence of God in order to categorize between right and wrong. We can't help but put actions and ideas into either barrel (or a neutral one, as well); it's part of human nature, or what C.S. Lewis noted as the Law of Human Nature. But this question itself is loaded as a cheap hotel is with roaches and crickets, and it is more complex than seven-layer dip or my wife's delicious lasagna. There is something innate within us that places items, events, speech, actions, and thoughts in good or evil slots, wise or foolish patterns, and so on, whether or not one believes in the existence of a Creator or Divine Providence. We all have morality. But that automatically leads to a follow-up question. If God's existence and morality are separate issues (a baseline theorem of secularism), then how do we say we know what is right and wrong? That is, after all, the whole question of ethics as a pursuit distinct from "morality".
One might say, "Well, we don't do anything that would harm someone else!" No question that is, by and large, a noble idea. Yet one could say, "But why is that important? Do you mean comfort, health, and safety as good and physical harm and mental torture as bad? If so, why do we elevate one category over the other? Could one person's pleasure be another's pain?" The moment we turn these ideas into universals, we have to explain why they are universals.
Again, one might counter that with, "We avoid doing harm to others because pain feels bad." And still that begs the immediate question, "To whom?", before turning to the larger question of "Why do we trust these feelings?" It begs an answer.
Suppose someone says, "We can see from experience that things work better for society if we do X instead of Y." Yes, experience can be a guide, but we also have to recall that slavery, sacrificing virgins to appease the gods, and Communism have all been viewed as positive notions for the greater good before, all part of the warp and woof of societal 'experience' before.
The point is this: I think when you pursue this line of thinking with more questions, we discover that whatever the standard is for right and wrong, it exists independently of us. When a person blurts out, "That's not fair!", then fair to whom? And why? How do you know that? You're appealing to a standard outside of yourself by which all actions are judged, a law of human nature.
Something can't come from nothing here. Principles don't belch forth from the dark void. The law of human nature has to have a standard that's independent of us.
And what if...what if...that law of human nature was beyond a law, but rather a Lawgiver who created humans in his nature?
Can you believe in morality without God? Yes!
But can you justify and explain morality while explaining him away?
Just asking...let the conversation continue.