Soft Theism: Where Does Morality Come From?

Soft Theism: Where Does Morality Come From? March 24, 2021

We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits make it acceptable? Read part 1 here.

This is post 10 in this series, and the topics are Jesus and the problem of morality.


Atheist: And what about Jesus? You still give Jesus a lot of respect, right?

Soft Theist: No. No. No. I respect his courage, but I do not respect his persona, or his message. I think he was a misguided religious extremist, who constantly overstated . . . You cannot present yourself as the all-compassionate one, and at the same time threaten people with Hell if you they don’t accept your theology.

People are so culturally indoctrinated to think of Jesus an ideal, good and wise, man. Same as people in the Muslim world are taught to think of Muhammad as embodying the highest ideals. But, I think both men . . . were religious extremists, if you study what they actually taught . . . objectively.

Cross Examined Blog: But you don’t accept the supernatural claims made about Jesus. It’s good to hear that you reject the wise and loving Jesus stereotype, but how much of the Jesus story do you accept? If you reject the supernatural claims, then is Jesus 100% legend, or do you think there was a real (though mortal) Jesus at the beginning?

Christians’ morality argument fails

Do you think the existence of morality is evidence for God?

I think the morality argument never gets anywhere.

Great to hear. I agree that it fails (more here).

Christians will say—If we’re just a bunch of chemicals, then there’s no such thing as morality. But we know morality DOES exist. We know . . . torturing babies for fun, is, objectively . . . immoral. There IS a cosmic moral order, an objective standard that exists, and, points to God. [Christian apologist William Lane] Craig says that without God, morality would be subjective, and we’d be lost in CULTURAL RELATIVISM

Craig must first show that objective morality exists and that we can reliably access it. He never does because he can’t. But that’s not a problem, because objective morality isn’t necessary to explain morality as it exists within human culture. Look it up and you’ll see that “morality” is defined without the word “objective.”

Religious and moral relativism

. . . But then—here’s where I think Craig’s argument fails—the reality is, that even WITH God, we are lost in . . . RELIGIOUS RELATIVISM, because, WHICH God is the right God!? The Christian God, the Muslim God, David Koresh’s God? Believers are not exempt from the problem of subjectivity. A theistic worldview guarantees nothing. ISIS thinks it’s operating under the . . . objective morality of its God.

You’re right that if God exists, he’s doing nothing to stop the continued fragmentation of Christianity into thousands of denominations. Worse, we’ve had two world wars and the Holocaust on his watch. Woody Allen said, “If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse.”

We also have moral relativism. Take any moral issue, and you will find Christians on opposing sides. Either objective morality doesn’t exist, or we humans can’t reliably access it. Either way, the moral argument fails.

And the Bible is full of outmoded moral attitudes on slavery, genocide, polygamy, and more with God’s moral stance looking very antiquated.

I said to a Christian that morality should be based on reason, and he responded by saying one person’s “reason” will differ from another’s. And I said right, but so will one person’s religion differ from another’s. That’s why I say the argument gets nowhere. The human condition is that we simply don’t have an unequivocal authority.

Well, Christians think they do and that their authority talks to them, but your point about religious relativism defeats that. There are now 45,000 denominations within Christianity.

[Michael] Shermer points out that even if there is no ultimate authority, no Archimedean point, shouldn’t lying and murdering, be wrong anyway? Isn’t it obvious?

Yeah. Yeah. Actually, I think Shermer has the right solution for identifying objective morality—use science, meaning social science and statistics, to determine ideas that result in the greatest well-being of society, without violating any individual rights. That would constitute objective morality.

We may have two different definitions of objective morality here. Craig defines it as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” But your definition of objective morality appears to be morality grounded in objective facts. To take a Sam Harris example of such a fact, women allowed to choose their own clothes thrive better than those forced to wear burkas.

Atheists’ morality

I think . . . evolution and the value of reciprocal altruism is a solid explanation for the existence of morality.

Yeah, I think that’s largely a good explanation, but, as Craig says, if morality is an evolutionary adaptation, then any deeper meaning is illusory, and morality is simply a human consensus. We might have a social contract not to rape, but that does not mean it’s really wrong; it’s just an agreement.

I disagree. Morality is a lot more than an agreement. Here is Penn Jillette:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.

The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

Where does Penn’s rejection of rape and murder come from? From his own makeup, which was shaped by evolution. This also applies to those of us who aren’t sociopaths. Yes, we are shaped by society (and vice versa), but there’s also our innate sense of moral right and wrong.

Now, on a personal level, aside from any intellectual argument, and, aside from any reciprocal altruism, I do intuitively feel a profound sense of . . . cosmic morality, that I think comes from God.

Next time: Afterlife and homeopathic religion

[The Christian god is] a being of terrific* character,
cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.
— Thomas Jefferson 
[*that is, terrible or terrifying]


Image from Joseph Vasquez (license CC BY 2.0)

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