This post is part of a feature from Patheos called Head to Head where our best minds debate the big questions of the day.
This week, I’m debating the Catholic Channel’s Dr. Gregory Popcak. The question: is a deity necessary for morality?
Can you be moral without God?
Of course you can, if by being “without God” one means not believing God exists. One can breathe without thinking air exists, after all. Humans are very good at denying the existence of a thing they need and use. I have known many moral atheists and have learned important lessons about living a good life from a few of them. Obviously, you can deny the existence of God and still be a very decent person.
Can you be moral without God?
Of course you cannot, because God exists (and reasonable people know He exists) so that there is nothing a person can do without God. The attribute of omnipresence rules out doing anything God isn’t around to experience.
I think what the question probably means: is God a necessary component in living a moral life whether you acknowledge Him or not? God might be helpful in living a moral life by telling you when you are making moral mistakes for example, but is He necessary?
This is true for three basic reasons: His sustaining us, His law, and His revelation.
First, God sustains our very existence as beings. He is by definition “the ground of being.” There is nothing we can do without His involvement. He is and so we are. Because we are free will beings, God is not the primary reason for our decisions, but He is the overarching cause for our having free will and minds capable of choosing.
Second, God has created the world with natural and moral laws. We can discover both types of laws without referring to God and even use them to fly a plane or feed the poor. Our choices determine which we do, but it is God that created and sustains both types of laws.
I am not suggesting that God intervenes constantly to prop up the cosmos and morality. He exists and permeates the cosmos and the moral universe. He sustains, but He does more than sustain. He undergirds meaning and value. Our moral choices matter because He exists to provide the absolute standard of goodness. He has, in all fullness, the property of goodness and so becomes the standard by which all goodness can be measured.
God is also all knowing, including what might have been if we had chosen differently. We can measure the outcome of our moral choices based on this knowledge, but only God could reveal such truth to us. The cosmos is so complex that such knowledge would be too wonderful for us without His revelation.
Divine revelation is necessary for complete morality because being moral is (in part) unknowable. The universe is so complicated and our passions so messed up by our brokenness that we need God to tell us aspects of the moral law that would otherwise escape our notice.
As Aristotle pointed, out morality is not usually dealing with actions that are always wrong. Sane humans agree with the moral law that it is always wrong to torture people for fun. Fortunately, most of our moral dilemmas do not deal with such terrible choices.
Most actions we take are moral if not done too little (defect) or too much. Sometimes the outcome determines the morality of the action. For example, it is not immoral in itself to eat, but one might eat immorally! It is easy (for me!) to imagine eating too much and being a glutton or too little and becoming Scrooge about food. If God does exist and is not silent in our lives, then divine guidance would be necessary to live a fully moral life with confidence.
We might not ever be perfectly moral, but we should aspire to such goodness. Knowing how to love the people around me is not just more hopeful with God, but is possible. That we (almost always) fail (some great saints come close to success) does not mean that possibility isn’t there.
Best of all, God is not merely “good,” but goodness implies mercy and love for His broken children. We have chosen badly and only God can help us (whether we see it or not) do good with any consistency. Thank God for God!
This week’s question was inspired by Patheos Atheist blogger Peter Mosley’s story on Theism’s Morality Glitch.