God, Objective Morality, and the Difference Between Knowing and Accounting For

Many theists think, and argue, that God must exist for objective morality to exist.

This claim can be interpreted more than one way. When arguing with theists, it is shrewd, for purposes of honesty, clarity, and strategy, to point this out. One reason is the following: Psychologically it seems that quite often people are committed to certain propositions more than they are committed to particular interpretations of those propositions. So, a given theist may be adamant about affirming that God is necessary for there to be objective morality but persuadable that some things that could be meant by that statement are not necessary. What ultimately matters to them to maintain, psychologically and theologically, in order to not feel like they are losing a key, identity-forming belief, is that something about morality requires God. Getting someone to abandon their belief in God is very difficult. Getting them to moderate their interpretation of their faith or to interpret an aspect of their faith they had not thought through yet in a more rational, rather than less rational, way is much easier by comparison. And this is a perfect topic to attempt to do that with.

The key distinction to stress is the following: how morality is explained vs. how it is discoverable. There are Christian philosophers who do grant that morality is a matter of rational discovery without reference to Scriptural revelation. In fact, if you are talking to Catholics, you can point right to Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church who believed that Aristotle, though a non-Christian, was not only able to know about morality but to have to understood it in the most philosophically accurate of ways. Aquinas believed in “virtuous pagans”, which is Medieval speak for what contemporary atheists call “people who are good without God”. (He just argued that non-believers could not know the supposedly “supernatural” virtues of “faith, hope, and love”.) Even some contemporary analytic moral philosophers are both committed evangelical Christians and moral realists who believe that moral knowledge is possible, irrespective of religious beliefs. It is not uncommon in any area of contemporary philosophy to find theists who don’t bring God into their philosophical investigations any more than personally theistic scientists or mathematicians do. Being a theist does not have to mean believing that invoking God illuminates every possible question out there and innumerable competent theistic academics and scientists reflexively understand this.

So there is no reason that a theist has to claim that God makes knowledge of morality or motivation to be moral dependent on being a theist—even if they still want to claim that God has to exist in order to create objective morality. This is easy to understand with analogies to logic and science. As far as I know, no theists deny that atheists are capable of grasping logical concepts or doing science. Some theists argue that the world would not in fact be logical and orderly in the ways that logic and science could explicate were there no God and so we need to believe in God to make rational sense of how it is that we can know things. But, nonetheless, our minds are manifestly equipped with logical categories and we have manifestly developed amazing powers of scientific discovery and confirmation and technological application. So we can and do know many things without referencing God–even if metaphysically we would be (supposedly) required to posit God to explain how all that order is possible.

So theists can interpret objective morality’s supposed dependence on God similarly. They can say that God is somehow an explanatory principle in why morality is true while granting that atheists (or people of different religions from their own) are able to use their reason to understand what morality is and that it is true. So, just as an atheist or people who worship wrong gods (or who wrongly understand God) can nonetheless grasp that laws of logic and findings of science are true but not know “why” they are true since that supposedly entails God, they can know and be motivated by moraliy similarly.

I think that God is in fact a demonstrably superfluous concept that does not in fact explain why morality, logic, or science are objectively binding. I think that positing a superpowerful mind that creates logic and order does not explain anything since that being itself would be subject to logic and order. Logical order seem to be the basic, brute (and marvelous!) fact of reality—if such a thing can be known at all with our feeble minds. Positing a super-mind does nothing to solve the problem. It just seems anthropomorphic and to superfluously add an extra, totally unproven, mind even more mysterious than our own to account for, without any independent evidence.

Nonetheless, if theism is not going to vanish after reading that last paragraph, I would rather theists at least shift en masse to the position that God explains the existence of morality rather than continue to make the even falser and more Othering charge that atheists or people with a wrong understanding of God cannot know anything about morality or be moral. Convincing the theist to shift the claim makes it a more academic one and less of an insulting one. It allows that there really is no great and terrifying threat from the atheist neighbor or politician. She can know and be motivated by morality too even if she (supposedly) cannot give as coherent an account of why it has truth as the theist (supposedly) can.

In fact, to impress this upon theists, we can point out that their attempts to convince atheists we need their God for morality to be true actually assume that we are people who know all about morality and are deeply invested in it. If we were amoral or immoral people, why would we be phased by their leaping up and down insisting that without God no one can know morality or be morally motivated? Why would that scare us? Implicitly, they know we know all about morality and care a great deal about it, just like they do. So point that out to them.

Finally, two important challenges I regularly like to make—one for theists and one for atheists. I like to challenge theists who attempt to convince atheists that if there is no morality why they want to use that gambit when, at least on the accusing theist’s own perspective, convincing an atheist that there is no reason to be moral might encourage the atheist to be amoral or immoral in his or her actions. The theist who argues that way, on her own terms, is risking convincing the atheist to be a worse person. The theist would rather use this scare tactic knowing that it is possible an atheist might say, “well I still see no objective reasons to believe in God, but now I also have no objective reasons to be moral either!” Why not, if you genuinely care about morality and not just creating converts using any tactics possible, affirm and encourage the atheist’s grasp of morality and then appeal to us on this common ground. That has the advantage of both making us feel respected, appealing to the morally conscientious side of our nature, and reinforcing our commitment to being moral generally. Not only is this approach more honest and less insulting, it serves morality itself much better and makes atheists more receptive than attempts to manipulatively demonize us.

And my challenge to atheists is simple: we need to be careful about when we get offended. There is a difference between a theist who says offensive and blatantly false things like “because you are an atheist you must be a bad person” or “if you were consistent in your atheism you would be a bad person”, on the one hand, and someone who simply calls for us to give good, rational explanations of our views on the foundations of morality. Someone who says that logic, science, or morality require a God to explain their truth is not thereby insulting atheists.

When a theist challenges us to justify our commitments to our specific moral principles in objective terms or to explain why morality has fundamental validity at all or accuses us of having an incoherent or contradictory understanding of the foundations of morality, logic, or science, these are not, in themselves, personal attacks. Sometimes they come mixed in with anti-atheist prejudices or personal attacks but they are not themselves personal attacks. I think they are wrong arguments. But they are not causes for personal offense any more than our challenges to theists that their beliefs are contradictory or incoherent are.

We rightly feel free to demand of theists that they distance themselves from their beliefs enough that they not take it personally when we charge that their view of the world is inconsistent, contradictory, incoherent, or refuted by philosophy science, history, probability, or various other facts. We need to be equally goodnatured, rather than offended, and give good rational arguments when they demand of us a coherent metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of logic, or metaethics. We also need to accept that their calls for moral theory are legitimate. And there already exist a great deal of insights into moral theory that have nothing to do with gods. Cutting edge moral philosophy is robustly secular and rich in insights. We should be educated in them and explain constructively. It is an opportunity for dialogue and education in secular thinking so that people grasp what their options outside of religious thinking are.

The average atheist may not be well educated in moral philosophy and this may explain why atheists often simplistically wave away serious, complicated questions of the foundations of morality as oh-so-easily-solved or evade the issue entirely by switching the subject to personal offense instead of taking the philosophical problems seriously. What is required is atheists be humbler and engage moral philosophy more rigorously instead of evading the hard work and patience involved in all of that with hand waving, crude over-simplificaions, and imprecise personal outrage.

Your Thoughts?

More strategies for debating theists: 13 Practical Strategies For Arguing With Religious Moderates

For my arguments against a theist who claimed she had to become a Catholic in order to account for her belief in morality consistently, see In Which I Answer Leah Libresco’s Moral Philosophy Concerns So You Don’t Become A Catholic Too

For a long but nearly thorough and definitive statement of my views on the foundations of morality see My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications to Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People

For my responses to the notion that God could guarantee objective morality, see God and Goodness and/or On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

For more on my challenges to theists not to try to convince atheists they need to be theists to be moral see For God or Morality? On Those Who’d Hold Morality Hostage For Faith

For more of my challenge to atheists not to conflate philosophical challenges that we have explain our moral philosophy coherently with demonization of atheists or personal attacks, see the post Being Personally Moral Is Not Enough, Atheists Need A Coherent Metaethics.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

    Very good post. I basically agree with your points; I would only add a couple of cents on the issue of why some (many) atheists often simplistically react to metaethical
    arguments for theism:

    The average atheist may not be well educated in moral philosophy and this may explain why atheists often simplistically wave away serious, complicated questions of the foundations of morality as oh-so-easily-solved or evade the issue entirely by switching the subject to personal offense instead of taking the philosophical problems seriously.

    I would agree that that’s part of the explanation.

    Another part, as I see it, is how some theists – even some philosophers – use their metaethical arguments for theism, and what kind of arguments they sometimes (or
    often) deploy in combination with their metaethical arguments.

    On that note, a prominent example is William Lane Craig, as well as a good number of theists who have a good degree of philosophical knowledge (even if they’re not
    professional philosophers, they do know considerably more than the average atheist, or than the average theist), and who also use Craig’s argument in a way that is similar to (some or all) the ways in which he uses it.

    More precisely, I would point out the following confusion-inducing features of Craig’s use of his metaethical argument:

    1. He tries to use this argument to persuade non-theists that God exists, and seems to aim at an audience that, even for the most part, does not have the knowledge to
    understand it – and he at least should know that.

    2. The language of part of his argument is considerable vague and/or obscure, even for a philosophically informed audience.

    3. He sometimes deploys his main metaethical argument alongside other arguments that, say, “have something to do with morality”, and even so-called “practical arguments”, including the claim that non-theism is “de-moralizing”, and that it allegedly weakens moral motivation.

    While he does in that context that atheists can “what we normally characterize as good and decent lives”, the fact remains that Craig’s motivational argument
    implicitly holds that, at least generally, not believing in God will tend to make a person’s character morally worse (because of the “de-moralizing” claim).

    • Msironen

      I think WL Craig (and many theists) confuse metaethics with the denial of metaethics. They simply take moral objectivism/realism for granted and proceed to show difficulties that arise from not accepting moral realism from a starting point where it is a given. It’s almost as if they’re arguing against themselves.

      By the way of analogy, It’s kinda like showing how many ways modern science contradicts creationism and then arguing that this simply discredits science and bolsters creationism.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Except that moral realism is not merely as absurd as creationism.

    • Msironen

      That’s certainly true and I didn’t mean the analogy in that sense (though I can see how it might come across that way).

      What I was trying to get at is that neither actually argue for their position; they just assume it and proceed to show that other positions seem untenable with theirs as a given.

      Presuppositional apologetics at least owns up to this pretty much from the outset. They don’t acknowledge such a thing as metalogic at all, either.

    • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

      Actually, Craig argues for his second premise on intuitive grounds, and science does not contradict it – unlike creationism. (ETA: on the point that science does not contradict the second premise, I replied to your reply from the Disqus control panel, and hadn’t read your exchange with Daniel yet).

      One problem, though, is what the second premise means. It’s quite obscure. But briefly, what he argues for is that there is a fact of the matter when it comes to moral questions, and that some behaviors are morally good, or immoral, etc. (e.g., that the Holocaust was immoral). That’s as far as his support for the second premise goes.

      Also, in order to explain the second premise, he gives some examples distinguishing matters of fact and matters of opinion.

      Now, if what he means by the second premise is equivalent to the conjunction of the following statements:

      OMVD1: Statements – or judgments, or whatever one calls them – of the form ‘X is immoral’, ‘Y is morally good’, ‘A has a moral obligation to Z’, etc., are objective, in an ordinary sense of the term ‘objective’. For instance, if someone claims that gay sex is immoral among humans – as Craig does-, then there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether that claim is true, and so on.
      OMVD2: Some statements of the form ‘A has a moral obligation to Z’ are true, and some statements of the form ‘Y is morally good’ are true, and so on, where Y is an actual behavior of a person, or a person,  A is an actual agent, etc.

      Then, I do not see any problem with his second premise. It should be noticed that that would be accepted by most philosophers, counting non-theists as well, even if some terminological issues make it look otherwise.

      For example, Sharon Street labels herself an antirealist when it comes to metaethics. Yet, her metaethical theory (constructivism, even in the variety she labels “Humean”) is a theory that accepts those two conditions.

      In other words, if (this is an example; I’m not claiming it is correct) Sharon Street metaethical theory is correct, then according to her terminology, moral realism is false. However, the second premise of Craig’s metaethical argument is true, at least if he uses the words as described above.

      On the other hand, if what Craig meant by the second premise is not limited to the two conditions above, then Craig has failed to adequately support the second premise, since he’s not provided any arguments to support the second premise that go beyond supporting OMVD1 and OMVD2. But based on what he said, while acknowledging that he’s being obscure, I do not see any good reasons to reject the second premise. I would interpret it as very probably equivalent to OMVD1 and OMVD2, and reckon his intuitive appeal is good enough (i.e., the burden would be on those who deny it).

  • busterggi

    As god’s morality is only ‘good’ because he is the biggest bully around and will torture anyone who disagrees with him I see nothing objective about it.

    • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

      While Yahweh is a big bully, evil, etc., the metaethical argument is about God (understood in a different sense; Craig is not very clear, but it seems he considers the “Greatest Conceivable Being” understanding to be a good approximation to the concept), not about Yahweh.

      While Craig also holds that Yahweh is God, that statement is not part of the metaethical argument (nor true, but that aside).

      Side note: to be clear, of course I’m not suggesting that either God or Yahweh exists. I’m assessing Yahweh’s moral character from the description of his actions in the Bible, not including of course the biblical claim that he’s good.

  • Beth Clarkson