Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Does morality require God?

One view of morality held by many (most?) Christians is that, without God, anything goes. The argument is that if God did not exist then we have no moral absolutes to guide us in our everyday decisions about how we act. Julian Baggini, in his article for Guardian Unlimited entitled Grey Matters, takes one of the new Pope Benedict XVI's last speeches as a cardinal to examine this issue. Baggini refers to Ratzinger's argument that '[a]bsolute moral values had to be defended ... against the "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires".' Baggini criticises what he sees as an erroneous simplistic black and white approach to morality when, in actual fact, shades of grey exist. Baggini writes:

We have known for a long time that orthodox religion has a preference for black-and-white certainties, but this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic. Yet perhaps we should thank Pope Benedict for bringing the issue to a head, for that might mean that at last it will be possible to confront and slay the myth that without God anything is permitted.

This issue is something I have thought a lot about. I have to admit that, when I look at the way the atheists I know behave, they have a moral sensibility even without a belief in God. They are not moral anarchists. There may be some (or many) atheists who are also moral anarchists. However, identifying examples of atheists who are immoral or amoral does not help to answer the question as to whether or not one needs God (or a god) to determine moral values. We can find plenty examples of Christians who, despite theire belief in God, behave in immoral ways. The question is If God doesn't exist does that mean, by necessity, that there can't be any moral values? After discussing this issue with many people who are atheist (or agnostic or, even Christian) I have come to conclude that one does not need God to have a legitimate moral value system. There are other reasons for developing a mutually acceptable set of moral guidelines for individuals and society to follow: philosophical reasons, pragmatic reasons, and so on.

This is not to say that God does not exist. I believe that God does exist. But if we tie the legitimation of our values exclusively to the existence of God then we have no reason to argue for their acceptance to a society, culture, or group that does not believe in God's existence. I once asked my students in a critical thinking class to imagine they were Christians (it was a mixed group of students at a University) who believed that abortion was immoral. They were asked to imagine being invited to a society of atheists to speak to them on why abortion should be made illegal -- what arguments would they present? One of the students (who happened to be a Christian) said he would say that God was against it. I asked him for the evidence for that claim and he said that the Bible said that God was against it.

I suggested to the student that his presentation would be entirely ineffective if he went to a group of atheists and argued his point of view from this basis. What good would it do to invoke God or the Bible when atheists didn't believe in the authority of either, let alone the existence of God? This student needed to think about the necessity of finding other reasons for his morality if he was going to communicate with a world that did not believe in God. As a result of the exercise, this student realised that there were other ways of arguing for morality other than appealing to God. If this is true, then there can be morals without God's existence and anything is not permissible.

Here's my challenge: Read Baggini's article and then consider how you would respond from a Christian point of view. Is it possible to agree with his essential point without giving up a belief in God? Do shades of grey really exist? Is it true to say that, if God did not exist, anything is permissible?

Baggini concludes his article with a challenge for each person to take responsiblity for ethics:

In the absence of a single moral authority, ethics is something we all have to take responsibility for. If we don't, then either anything really will go, or people will go back to the comfort Benedict XVI's certainty provides.

In the multicultural world of the 21st century we effectively live in a society without a single moral authority. Christians can no longer expect the rest of society to arbitrarily (from their point of view) base ethics in the existence of God. Rather than retreating into a Christian conclave shut away from the world, we will need to be involved by taking our place alongside others with the responsibility of developing a mutually agreed moral framework where the authority of God may be part of the Christian basis for moral thinking but which can no longer be imposed on the everyone else.

1 comment:

  1. Are you saying that we shouldn't impose our Christian moral thinking on others? Or that we should find other ways to bring people into the way of Christian thinking?