There are certain things that we all know are wrong — child molestation, for instance, or murder. But how do we know those things are wrong? Many religious people (and I’m mostly gearing this toward Christians, since they’re the group I’m most familiar with) believe that we must appeal to a higher authority in order to know what’s truly right or wrong. Of course, they believe that authority is God.
But what if you don’t believe in God? Are you forced to concede that there is no such thing as absolute morality? Must you acknowledge that your moral ideals are no better than the morals of a sadist?
No, I don’t think so. I believe that there is such a thing as absolute morality, and I don’t believe a god must exist in order for us to know what it is. However, I think it’s important to discuss exactly what morality entails. While I do believe in absolute morality, I don’t believe all morality is absolute. We probably all know that morality means “conformity to the right rules of conduct.” But those rules can vary in importance. Morality deals with modesty, for instance. But there’s no absolute level of modesty. Some Muslims believe it’s wrong for a woman to show her face or hair, whereas some cultures wear little more than loincloths. Which one is right? It depends on the culture. Even within Christianity there are different opinions about moral issues. Some Christians believe dancing, gambling, and drinking alcohol are all wrong — other Christians don’t see a problem with those things. So many aspects of morality are quite relative.
However, some moral issues are absolute. It is wrong to rape, molest, or murder someone. It is wrong to steal. Slavery is wrong. Dan Barker once said that morality is trying to minimize harm in the world. Those principles sound good, and I’m sure most people would agree with them. But for those of us who aren’t religious, where do we get our authority for those claims?
There’s a website called ProofThatGodExists.org which was created by an apologist named Sye ten Bruggencate. The site takes you through a series of questions that are supposed to prove that God exists and you already believe in him (even if you don’t want to admit it). In case you’re interested, there’s a very fascinating interview with him here. Many of his questions deal with whether or not laws of morality, laws of science, laws of math, and laws of logic exist. I’m going to appeal to similar reasoning, though I’ll reach a different conclusion. It’s a fact that 2+2=4. But that law was not created by someone; it’s an explanation of reality. When you have two things and add two more, you will have four. We could have called those numbers by different names, but it wouldn’t change the number of items that you have. Certain aspects of morality work the same way. Every culture in history has discovered that murder is bad for society. So is theft and rape. Many cultures allowed those things to be done to members of different tribes, but it was never okay within one’s own tribe. The Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu both predate the Law of Moses (even if Moses actually wrote it), and we can see that those cultures had already discovered these aspects of morality. They did not need the God of the Bible to tell them how to behave.
When dealing with the above math problem, if one person said that 2+2=17, and another said that 2+2=4, which answer is better? Obviously, 4 is the correct and best answer. But how do you know that? What source of authority can you point to in defense of that position? None, except the authority of logic. No entity has told us that 2+2=4; it’s simply a principle that we’re able to understand. Similarly, understanding that murder is bad for society is a simple, logical principle. And beyond that, most people feel saddened and horrified when others suffer. It’s not difficult to draw the conclusion that causing others to suffer is wrong.
In other words, I think the major moral absolutes are little more than common sense. Perhaps that sounds overly simplistic. But if humans aren’t smart enough to discover that indiscriminate killing is a bad thing, how did we figure out how to build airplanes or communicate wirelessly? The Bible certainly didn’t teach us how to do those things, so how did we figure them out? In fact, several studies have shown that even animals exhibit certain moral tendencies, suggesting that our sense of morality is a natural instinct. For some examples, you can check out these articles at The Telegraph, BBC News, and the University of Chicago Press.
In order to cope with more ancient examples of morality than what’s found in the Bible, like the Code of Ur-Nammu and the fact that some animals exhibit morality, some Christians now believe that God has given us an innate sense of morality — one that we’re born with. This is an interesting theory, but it doesn’t count as evidence for God, since it becomes indistinguishable from the idea that our moral tendencies have developed through evolution. If we’re all born with morality, then we don’t need the Bible to learn it. Either some deity programmed it into us, or we developed it into an instinct via evolution. But since it would be nearly impossible to determine which theory is correct, morality can no longer be used as an argument for the existence of God.
Many theists will probably think that the position that absolute morality can be derived from common sense is a weak argument and an insufficient basis for one’s morality. But that’s okay. As an atheist, I view their position in exactly the same way. I don’t believe in their god, so I don’t think it’s a sufficient basis for morality. I would much rather someone come to the conclusion he should live morally based upon reason than upon ancient religious teachings. After all, religious morality has led to things like the Inquisition and the 9/11 attacks.
Finally, the fact that religious people ask we non-believers what we base our morality upon already shows that they instinctively know we want to be moral. If we’re atheists, and morality is actually based upon God, why would we want to be moral? The fact that they assume we want to be shows that morality isn’t based upon God at all.
In the next post, we’ll discuss this issue further.
Also, I just ran across this post by my blogging friend Don Maker. I strongly encourage you to check it out as I think it ties in well with what I’ve tried to say here.