Is God needed for us to be moral?

Teaching ethics a number of years ago, I was told by an earnest student that there can be no morality without God. He seemed to agree implicitly with the idea that “If God does not exist, then all things are permitted.” He also believed in a visceral way that without God’s restraining hand, people would become riddled with vice, steal, kill, rape, take drugs and indulge in sinful sex. It is as if humans are just waiting to escape the leash and run amok. On this view, there is no reason whatsoever to be moral without the promise of heaven in the next life or the threat of hell fire.

I found upon asking that many of my students felt the same way. This surprised me greatly, given the attempts in recent centuries to find ways of conceiving of morality in secular terms. For example, neither Kantian ethical theory nor Utilitarianism pin notions of right and wrong to the existence of God. Kant thought he could anchor moral thinking to the notion of duty and the categorical imperative, which demands that we treat all people as ends in themselves and act upon universal prescriptive principles. However, God still had a role to play in Kant’s philosophy as chief cheerleader for the moral law within us.

Utilitarianism, which defines right and wrong in terms of maximizing pleasure and happiness, moves even further from a God-centered ethics. Instead of God pointing to the moral law and endorsing it, we have an ethics that is based purely on human nature and society. In fact, utilitarianism gives us a way to judge God’s commands. If God’s commands go against the greatest happiness principle, then we have a good reason to jettison them.

There is no doubt that some valuable moral insights have been promulgated by religion. In fact, the principle of the Golden Rule, which many of the world’s religions contain, seems to be a good place to start thinking about morality. It may have come from religion, but we can get there simply by reflecting on the ways human beings interrelate. “Treat others as you wish to be treated” or, better to my mind, “Do not treat others as you do not wish to be treated” are both admirable rules for life. We may not get to “Love your neighbor as yourself” from the Golden Rule, but we certainly get close.

Consider a thought experiment. Let us imagine that there was never a God-based moral system, no Divine Commandments, no rules of conduct springing from Supernatural Revelation. From this perspective, let us now look at the great moral debates of our age. Would they look different to us?

First, consider some of the current contentious debates, including abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, cloning, drug use, contraception, sex education and gay marriage. God’s finger actively stirs up these debates. So my question is how they would look without God’s intervention. Would they seem so intractable and cause so much heat and sometimes violence? I believe not.

Let us consider just two: euthanasia and gay marriage. Would these be such big issues if God had not pronounced against them? Yet, is God’s prohibition a good reason to ban them? With respect to the first, we are more humane with animals than with humans. The only issue with euthanasia from a Revelationless point of view is whether the person who wants to die is certain in resolve. As for gay marriage, it is even more plain that it would be a non-issue if God had not forbidden same-sex unions. It would be an interesting project to go down the list and discover if these problems could be more easily resolved without God’s input.

One problem with God is that we cannot know with absolute certainty whether God exists or not. Therefore, it is a personal choice whether or not to believe. It is a choice made on the basis of what Kant called a ‘practical postulate’ of reason. In his view, it is best to live as if God exists. However, it might be better now to act as if God does not exist and does not interfere in human morality. Perhaps our moral dilemmas would be one step closer to being solved if this were to happen.


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