Good without a God?

Can there be good without God? Or, is morality possible without God Or, is morality possible in a naturalistic worldview? Paul Copan, in his essay “Ethics Need God,” in Debating Christian Theism (ed. JP Moreland, C. Meister, K.A. Sweis), argues that Christian theism provides a much firmer foundation for morality than naturalism.

Note this: Copan does not argue that only theists believe objective morality exists, that belief in God is required for morality, that atheists or nontheists are immoral, etc.. He’s arguing that theism offers “a far more likely context than naturalism/nontheism for affirming objective moral values and duties” (85).

His hard-hitting, even polemical, piece includes a list of nontheist thinkers who believe without God there is not moral ground: Sartre, Nietzsche, Russell, Mackie and Dawkins (“no evil and no good”). “The worldview favoring a robust moral world is theism, in which a good, rational, supremely aware Creator makes human beings in his image” (87). One of the more interesting points made in this piece is that because humans are made in God’s image, and because that image provides moral intuitions, nontheists have moral intuitions. Not sure yet what to make of this, but as an explanatory device it makes sense to me.

Would there be morality without persons? Is personhood requisite for morality? I’d say Yes. What about you?

I find this important: “Naturalism’s inability to get beyond descriptions of human behavior and psychology (‘is’) does not inspire confidence for grounding moral obligation (‘ought’)” (88).

Copan argues that self-awareness/consciousness, reason and the capacity of free will, three elements needed in moral theory, are not as easy to account for in nontheism as they are in theism.

The Euthyphro dilemma (Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?) requires another option: namely, that what is holy/good is holy/good because God’s is holy/good. So neither the command nor an independent existence grounds morality.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • DMH

    This issue has been my biggest problem with naturalism. If someone is powerful enough there seems to be no ultimate reason not to exercise that power in any “direction” he or she wants, both individually and socially. There are many practical reasons to be and do good but I can’t see how both personality and morality don’t ultimately boil down to chemistry… but I’m open.

  • Daniel B.

    This is an interesting conversation to have, but I never see any further deconstruction from theists when they say morality is “grounded” in God. This it seems to me is meaningless. If we’re talking moral motivation theory, what does theism offer over non-theism other than a binary view of the afterlife (i.e., hope for reward and threat of punishment)? This seems to me less like morality than a cloying servility.

    A more humanist lens holds that people are capable of knowing right from wrong, and choose to do right without promise of reward or threat of punishment aka (“Being an Adult). Our capacity to empathize in conjunction with the lessons derived from social experience seem to require sufficient explanation and foundation for acting morally toward our fellow brothers and sisters.

  • Phil Miller

    If we’re talking moral motivation theory, what does theism offer over
    non-theism other than a binary view of the afterlife (i.e., hope for
    reward and threat of punishment)?

    I would say that what it offers is a moral foundation for the universe itself. It grounds definitions of good and evil in something beyond the human experience. It seems to me that any humanist construction of morality is going to be ground in, well, completely human terms. It comes down to human preference.

    I agree with DMH. If we’re saying that all morality is grounded in human capacity to know right from wrong (which in and of itself is kind of a loaded statement to begin with – it’s assuming right and wrong are discoverable truths of some sort), than that morality is a moving target. It comes down to either something like the majority rules or the person or group with the most power decides what’s right or wrong.

  • http://knowthesilence.blogspot.com/ Joshua

    “If we’re saying that all morality is grounded in human capacity to know right from wrong (which in and of itself is kind of a load statement to begin with – it’s assuming right and wrong are discoverable truths of some sort), than that morality is a moving target.”

    -If we can’t discover or evaluate right and wrong on our own, how can we look at God (or rather, our experiences of what we think God is or other people’s descriptions of what God is) and determine that God is, in fact, good?

    “It comes down to either something like the majority rules or the person or group with the most power decides what’s right or wrong.”

    -Many theistic moral theories boil down to something like this as well. The majority of people who believe they have experienced God think that God wants x, so we should do x. God is more powerful than anything else, so God gets to decide what’s right and wrong.

  • Phil Miller

    If we can’t discover or evaluate right and wrong on our own, how can we look at God (or rather, our experiences of what we think God is or other people’s descriptions of what God is) and determine that God is,
    in fact, good?

    All I’m saying is the fact that we’re talking about being able to discover right and wrong is assuming that they exist in some sort of objective, discoverable form. If right and wrong are simply abstract concepts based on human experience, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about discovering them. It would be like talking about discovering a preference for jazz over heavy metal. That may mean something to me as an individual, but it doesn’t mean anything larger than that.

    It seems to me that once we’re willing to agree that the concepts of right and wrong are something exist beyond pure personal preference, than we have to start talking about who has the authority to decide what these are, and how exactly they can be discovered.

    Many theistic moral theories boil down to something like this as well. The majority of people who believe they have experienced God think that God wants x, so we should do x. God is more powerful than anything else, so God gets to decide what’s right and wrong.

    I guess you could say that. Though, the thing that’s unique about Christianity is that God isn’t defined in terms of sheer power. He is defined in terms of love, or in terms of His relationship to His creation. It isn’t that God is simply the one with all the power, and therefore, He makes all the rules. It’s that God has imbued Creation with certain qualities that reflect His nature. Of course, the main thing that make Christianity unique is the Incarnation. So God’s ultimate revelation about what He is like was/is Jesus Christ. So it’s not raw power that gives God the right to say why things should be a certain way. What “gives Him the right”, so to speak, is suffering for the sake of His Creation.

  • DMH

    “-If we can’t discover or evaluate right and wrong on our own, how can we look at God… and determine that God is, in fact, good?”

    Joshua, a valid point I think. I would bring in some concept of “revelation”, specifically, the revelation of Jesus, which in turn would influence my concept of “God”.

    In this series of posts we have been looking at individual arguments concerning theism. I understand why but ultimately I think we need to step back and take in the whole picture (just as we would with a very large, detailed painting in a museum) of our philosophical perspective and evaluate it not only rationally but in terms of “beauty”- broadly defined to include things like justice, morality, meaning, purpose, love… and then ask how this perspective better helps me live out my life as a husband or wife, father or mother, neighbor,… I know this isn’t a logically air tight way to make a case but I think it’s closer to how we all make decisions as to who we will be and how we will act.

    In that regard naturalism does not enable me to fight evil (except on a power level). I can’t say to the warlord who uses rape as a weapon “you’re wrong!”, because ultimately it’s all just chemistry. On a more theistic basis I think I can, because “what is good and right” is intrinsic to reality.

  • Rob Bradford

    Could it be that some type of moral structure is innate? Franz de Waal’s studies of chimpanzees and bonobos at the Yerkes Primate Center near Atlanta, have shown that our cousins develop a form of morality within the context of social behavior and group dynamics. This morality structure seems to be an innate characteristic that each youngster has in a “rough” form. Group dynamics and experiences somewhat refine the morality structure. Bonobos are a matriarchal species that do whatever it takes to avoid conflict; they are cooperative and empathetic.
    All this without a religion or a god. My point is that humans have the same innate moral form as our primate relatives. So it seems from observing human behavior, morality can be a functioning influence in our lives without religion. I am not anti-religion or anti-Christian, yet I do believe that good is an option from a naturalistic perspective.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    Good points… I agree, tho I’m a panentheist over against a pure naturalist.

  • http://knowthesilence.blogspot.com/ Joshua

    Taking a page from the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Carrier, “what is good and right” can be seen as intrinsic to reality from a naturalistic perspective as well, if you think that “good” refers to things that help us thrive as a species and live happy and productive lives. It’s easy to thwart that by saying “why should I care about human flourishing?” But you can do that with any basis of morality. “Why should I care about beauty/love/justice/God’s commands/whatever you think “good” is grounded on?”
    I can easily see naturalistic explanations one why we would view things like rape, murder, and torture to be wrong (which is different from saying they actually *are* wrong), but those are always the examples that theists use when they try to demonstrate the objective morality exists and is connected to God. I always wonder if they can do the same with other commandments found in religion that don’t have such a universal (and naturally explicable) appeal, such as commandments against eating pork or working on a specific day of the week.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    I’ve not read this or other things by Copan. I’m wondering if he is including panentheism in nontheism or theism. Does he deal with this at all?

    I think it’s placed in either one by different people. As a panentheist (of Process sort), I consider it in its own category, given typical definitions of the other two. As Griffin says, if forced into one of just these two options, I’d go theism, but I (like him) make clear distinctions on the nature of God’s “interventions” or “supernatural” characteristics from standard theism.

    To the morality point, in Process, God does “create” (or develop?) morality but not via “objective” truths or “universal” commands. My Talbot (!) ethics/philosophy prof tried to solve his objection to assumptions that “absolutes” exist by saying only the Bible was an absolute… I can’t see that that solves anything. (If there ARE “absolute” moral standards, probably no two people agree fully on what they are… many not even on what constitutes say, murder vs. self-defense or legitimate warfare…. If “objective” morals are only abstract and general, what actual value is their supposed existence?)

    Whoever introduced empathy in the comments is onto a key thread. Wherever we “land” in understanding good with or without God, our own development of empathy is critical, with our understanding of how to do it with our children (and others’ if we teach, interact, etc. with them) or adult friends (early is MUCH more effective). Empathy is not at all equal to moral thought, nor always leading to moral action, I realize. But without it, not much that is moral, and challenging, gets done.

    I’m not sure either God or religious systems are required for activating or “training” empathy and role-taking with “the Golden Rule” in focus. Yes, sometimes Christian faith (or other systems) can be helpful, but I don’t see evidence that it (or they) are the only way(s)… Rather the evidence seems to strongly suggest otherwise. The first view is a common illusion among Christians that has long bothered me. It seems a form of self-bias (“in-group” bias) and denial of broader reality.

  • Phil Miller

    I always wonder if they can do the same with other commandments found in religion that don’t have such a universal (and naturally explicable) appeal, such as commandments against eating pork or working on a specific day of the week.

    Most would not hold up such commandments as moral absolutes. Jewish people, for instance, are not expecting everyone to not eat pork (nor would most Muslims, either, for that matter).

    There are few things I can think of offhand that are considered near universally wrong but don’t necessarily have naturalistic explanations – incest and pedophilia to name a couple. You can find examples of incestuous relationships in many animals. Pedophilia, also.

    I suppose you could say that both are related to “human flourishing”, and I would agree with that. It’s just that both seemed to based on some broader idea of human personhood and free will that become harder to justify without getting into metaphysics.

  • Tim

    Scot,

    Does Copan evaluate any of the Compatibilist arguments out there – for how moral accountability can exist in a naturalistic world? Or any of the sociobiological explanations for Morality, which see our moral sense as a quality of the human condition? It seems like there are a number of “hard determinists” in non-theistic circles who dismiss the notions of moral accountability. The non-theistic thinkers you enumerated above would I suspect be representative of this type of thought. But there are quite a few non-theists who also believe moral accountability is a very real, naturally grounded phenomenon. What sort of arguments does he evaluate from this side? I didn’t see it in the post. Thanks Scot!

  • Gene

    If there is nothing outside of myself that defines what is good & bad, right or wrong, then do I not get to define these for myself? And while I may define them in conjunction with others, there is nothing to say that I must, should or ought for those are moral terms which I am free to not recognize. I thus become a “god” onto myself. Others may force consequences on me in attempts to shape my behavior, but until I recognize them, they have no moral authority only the force of strong arm tactics or pyschological manipulation. Thus, the ability to arrive at any understanding of good & bad, right or wrong from the stand point of society depends on us recognizing the authority of something or someone outside of ourselves from whom our moral values are derived.

  • DMH

    “It’s easy to thwart that by saying “why should I care about human flourishing?” But you can do that with any basis of morality. “Why should I care about beauty/love/justice/God’s commands/whatever you think “good” is grounded on?”

    Yes, I agree. So much in philosophical conversation depends on what assumptions (involving many different areas) you want to go with. You can always criticize one position from another. Criticism is rather easy (not insinuating anything, just speaking generally), building a positive “system” which enables us to live in harmony with god :), ourselves, others, nature, … is something harder. As I try to think about things naturalism does not do that for me because of the ultimate reduction-ism problem.

    More specifically , I guess I would bring in a moral accountability aspect. In a naturalistic world a person who holds the power and influence can say “screw you” and do truly heinous things without having to answer for it- no justice. In a more theistic setting, he or she will have to answer.

    “(which is different from saying they actually *are* wrong)”

    If you have ever been a victim, actually touched by evil, you tend to have a greater appreciation for the “actual wrongness” of them. I don’t know why other theists bring these things up but I bring them up because they are realities. It is easy to talk about all this theoretically, especially if you live in a safe middle class American neighborhood (again, not insinuating anything). If you happen to live in a neighborhood run by drug dealers and gang bangers the questions of evil, morality, and justice (and why it’s important to have something beyond power and chemistry) is very personal.


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