The author and enforcer of morality?
I’ve been listening to a lot of debates (in podcasts), mostly about whether the Christian god (or any personal god) exists.
Here is one of the most common challenges to the atheist position: “If there is no god, where does morality come from? Who or what has the moral authority to decide what is right and what is wrong?”
And here is another common challenge: “Without God to answer to, what motivates you to be good?”
I know these challenge have been answered eloquently and convincingly by many others, but I’d still like to offer a multi-point response of my own.
1. These challenges pose a false problem, produced by sleight of hand:
Step 1: Assume the existence of a god with traits only a god can have — in this case, absolute moral authority.
Step 2: Hypothetically remove that god from existence.
Step 3: Put the burden on atheists to fill the vacancy with something else that has the same trait.
(The same technique is represented in the question: “If there is no God, what is the meaning of life?” The speaker generally has a narrow definition of “meaning” in mind — the implication is “God assigns my transcendent, sacred missions to me. Who assigns yours to you?”)
It has not even been established that we humans have or need an absolute moral authority, so questions about where it comes from are premature.
2. There is a common set of good and bad behaviors that theists and atheists acknowledge.
Giving, telling the truth, and protecting people from harm are good. Stealing, lying, and physical assault are bad. Enhancing people’s self-esteem is good; degrading it is bad. There are trade-offs, but we all have a very similar sense of what is right and wrong.
When people deviate from the common moral code, it’s often because they have adopted uniquely religious ‘moral’ hierarchies — usually entailing requirements or constraints on speech, thought, food, and sexual behavior that do not promote anyone’s well-being in any tangible way and that often work against it.
In the debates I’ve heard, when the atheist opponent points out that nonbelievers also know good from evil , the theist concedes but explains that “the law is written on everyone’s heart,” invoking Romans 2:15. In other words, we are indeed all born with an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but God put it there. At first glance, this seems no more testable than a claim that God engineered the Big Bang. However, the “written on our hearts” claim has a flaw: only the common moral code is in everyone’s heart. Everybody knows that stealing, lying, and physical assault are wrong; everybody does not ‘know’ that homosexuality, eating shellfish, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are wrong.
3. God, as portrayed in the Bible, acts — and commands people to act — in ways that are inconsistent with what ‘we all know’ is right. His moral expectations are not only subjective but also incoherent.
By comparison to the common moral code among humans, the biblical god’s moral code is completely without rhyme or reason — especially in the Old Testament.
- In multiple instances, God commands his chosen people to commit genocide and take slaves, including sex slaves. (Viewed another way, he punishes the non-chosen people just for being non-chosen — something completely beyond their control and completely within God’s control.)
- God commands Abraham to murder his son.
- God executes one of his own Levites, Uzzah, for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant in order to steady it.
4. Everyone is motivated by fear of repercussions.
Whether there are gods to answer to or not, people still have to deal with the natural, legal, economic and social repercussions of their actions.
5. Vicarious redemption negates fear of repercussions from God.
If a person believes he can have any and all of his sins absolved by ‘accepting’ Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice, then he has no greater motive to be moral than a person who believes there are no gods to answer to. Once he’s been ‘saved,’ his fear of hell is dissolved. So what motivates him to be good?