God, Religion, and Morality

Morality has a long association with religion, and on most ethics panel there's a minister.  So, it’s natural to ask whether morality essentially depends on God and religion.


The first thing to understand is the very obvious point that God and religion are not the same; for example, Christ and Christianity are not the same thing.  God, if such a being exists, is independent of us, much like the planet Jupiter; religion, by contrast, whatever else it is, is also a human enterprise, and therefore subject to human folly and wickedness.  For example, Christians claim that their god is always good, but hardly anyone would say that Christianity as a religion has always been good: just think of the Inquisition, forced conversions, or the treatment of religious minorities.  Moreover, from the fact that a religion exists it does not follow that the corresponding god exists as well.  So, in our discussion, we are going to keep God and religion separate.

God and Morality


Some philosophers (e.g., Anscombe) have argued that morality depends on God because:

1.     Contemporary morality uses the notion of moral obligation.

  1. The notion of moral obligation presupposes that of moral law.
  2. But a law presupposes a law-giver.
  3. However, laws and norms of human society and individual conscience won't do because they are often wrong, absurd and idiosyncratic, as history amply shows.
  4. Hence, the only plausible law-giver left is God.
  5. So, contemporary morality entails a divine law theory of obligation in which moral laws are divine commands.


Similarly, one may argue that the only way to have objective moral values is by appealing to God otherwise moral values would just be the result of historically determined cultures.

Thought Question: is this right?  More generally, what do you think is the origin of moral values?  How about evolutionary pressure?


The basic issues about the relation between morality and God concern:

·        the relation between God's commands and morality.



i. The relation between God's commands and morality:

This view highlights the idea of divine omnipotence.

What could a theist say?  Those theists who adopt this view often say that divine commands stem from God’s nature, which is absolutely good, and that therefore they are moral.   One could go further and claim that God is not just but Justice, nor loving but Love, not moral but Morality, etc.  The God’s commands would be ipso facto moral.

Thought Question: do these proposals work? 


Then, God is a mere transmitter of values much in the same way in which a math teacher is a transmitter of mathematics which, however, does not depend on her.

This view highlights the notion of divine righteousness.

Thought Question: Is objectivism sufficient to base morality on God, given that morality does not depend on His will? 


Thought Question: if you are a theist, which of the two previous positions do you adopt?


ii. The role of God in moral knowledge
Suppose you are a moral theological objectivist but still think that some aspect of morality depends on God.  Then you might hold that morality depends on God in the sense that God is the only original transmitter of morality.  On this view the dependence of morality on religion is epistemological.  True, there are atheists who seem to know that murder is wrong, but they don't really fully know it; they are like non-physicists talking about atoms: they may get it right, but they are unable to justify their beliefs. Ultimately, for us moral justification ends with God’s word.

·       Ethicists have often produced systems in which they have argued that moral laws can be arrived at simply by the use of our natural capacities.  Presumably, many an atheist has good justifications for the belief that murder is wrong or, at any rate, not worse justification than those a religious person could offer.  Much depends on what kind of justification one is looking for.

·       Many theists have argued that God, whether the legislator of morality or not, has implanted in us the ability to understand the basic laws of morality, so that believers and nonbelievers alike can come to know how to behave.  


iii.  The role of God as the guarantor of the universal objectivity of morality.

Some argue that without God, morality would just be a social convention without any universal validity beyond cultures or self-interest.

Problem: the usual reply is that since we are rational beings, we can understand that basic moral rules apply universally.


iv. The role of God as the ultimate administrator of justice.

Some theists have argued that morality depends on God because God is the only person who can assure that justice is done, namely that in the next life one receives good and evil in proportion to the good and evil one has done.  In other words, morality can be fully actualized only if God exists.

Problem: That justice can be brought about fully only by God does not show that the source of morality is God.


Thought Question: This will work only if what happens in the next life depends, at least in part, on our actions in this life.  So, the requirements for salvation, a perennial topic in Christian theology, are obviously relevant here.  What do you think?



Religion and Morality

There are different ways in which one could tie morality and religion.  For example:



One might argue that there’s a necessary link between religion and morality because of the role religion plays in moral motivation. The reason is that if one believes that some god exists and one wants to please it, then one will behave in a certain way, whether god exists or not.



One might argue that the belief in a god who will punish and reward us in the afterlife on the basis of our deeds is a necessary component of moral motivation.

·       At a minimum one might argue that acting out of fear has little or no moral worth: threats extort but fail to impose moral obligation.

·       As a matter of fact, many atheists and theists behave morally but not out of fear of punishment in the afterlife.



Alternatively, one might say that only a belief in God, a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, can rationally reconcile the drastic demands of morality and our self-interest by guaranteeing that morality and happiness will ultimately cohere.



One might argue that even if God has given all of us the ability to tell right from wrong, believers have an advantage because of revelation, where God tells the faithful how to conduct their lives.  Or, more radically, one could say that morality totally depends on revelation.  The first difficulty consists in determining what counts as sacred texts and what their teachings are.  These are serious problems a theist must address:


Jesus’ teachings are typically humane and, by any standards, very often highly moral.  However, the NT is unclear as to whether the Law, issued as binding forever and containing some of the above commands, is really still binding.  Twice Jesus says “yes” going as far as claiming that not one iota should be changed (Matt 5:17-19 and Luke 16:17).  Some of Paul’s letters seem to say ‘no.’ (There seems to be scholarly disagreement on this issue).  Note that following Lev. 20:9, Jesus may think that children who curse their parent should be killed (a part of the Law), depending on whether he’s using a rhetorical device against the Scribes or not (Matt. 15: 4-7; Mark 7: 9-10).  At least once Jesus opposes the application of the Law, in the famous pericope adulterae (the adulterous woman’s passage) at John 7:53-8:11. (The passage is contested as an interpolation because several early manuscripts lack it).  Jesus may also be read as saying that he has come to fulfill the Law; however, it’s hard to understand what that means: see to it that it’s fully implemented? Complete? Complete and reform?  Make the Law conform to its true spirit?  If so, what is it?  Hardly one of love and justice, one would think, given the abominable commands it contains.


In short, the King James Bible contains a bewildering array of commands, some immoral, some highly moral, some in seeming conflict with each other.  So, what should one follow?  One obvious answer is to appeal to morality, dropping the idea that morality depends on scriptures.

That is, we use morality to determine the boundaries of what "proper" religion should say; for example, presumably we don’t want religion to say that Sabbath-breakers, witches, apostates, and children who curse their parents should be killed; nor do we want to interpret Luke 14:23 as saying that infidels should be compelled to become Christians, especially after the forced conversions Christianity has been guilty of, or John 8:44 as saying what it seems to be saying, that the father of the Jews (not just the Pharisees but also those who had believed in him)  is the devil, especially after the despicable treatment Jews have been subjected to by Christians, who also considered them guilty of “deicide.”  But this enterprise seems reasonable only if we are already prepared to assess basic moral standards independently of religion.  Keep in mind that religion is not God, and therefore a theist may hold that morality depends on God, but that

o   He has given all of us the ability to understand morality

o   Theists should use that understanding to interpret God’s word properly so that immoral commands are ‘read away’.  

Thought Question: ‘read away’ meaning what?  Can it be done fully?




So, bracketing religious considerations is a reasonable strategy for doing ethics; in other words, a theist who believes that we have a God-given ability to tell right from wrong can use that to discuss morality with members of other religions or atheists.



There’s another practical reason for bracketing religion; we live in a society in which believers of different persuasions, and unbelievers, live. So, as far as possible we should do ethics without appealing to religion or God. 



A Residual Problem


Can a Christian really “read away” anything in Scripture?  Even today many atheists and non-Christian theists are distrustful of Christianity because historically non-Christians have been persecuted and sacred texts do contain commands seemingly directed against them.  They may be read away, but, also, they may not.  For example, suppose I’m a Sabbath breaker, homosexual, apostate idolater witch; then, there are at least four (!) specific divine commands saying that I should be killed.  Now a Christian tells me that today Christians would not do that any longer; she may go as far as saying that they should never have done it.  Well and good.  But how is that going to help?  Her answer entails that my safety depends on how Christians decide to read their sacred text which, on a natural literal reading, tells them to kill me.  (Things are much worse if we are talking about Christians who adopt a strictly literal reading of the Bible even in the light of established science like evolution, or who are still so worried about witchcraft to inveigh against the Harry Potter stories).  I open a history book and find that in the past Christians used to burn people like me.  Put yourself in my shoes. Would you expect me to look at Christianity with kind eyes, or to be afraid of it and what it stands for?  Seeing that I’m upset, the Christian tells me that her god is a ‘god of love’, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and that Jesus has come to fulfill the Law, or that only who is without sin may throw the first stone.  Great, that’s what one would expect a morally decent Christian to say, but is that really going to help?  Religion is in no small measure a human enterprise, and individual Christians, congregations, and churches have at times behaved abominably, ‘god of love’ or not, love of the sinner, the neighbor, or not; and what’s scary is that they did it often believing that they were doing God’s work and reasonably (!) justifying their action by appealing to their sacred books.  So, I make a proposal: if today Christians really think that killing me is immoral, why don’t they excise the relevant passages from their sacred book?  At this point the Christian looks at me horrified: not one iota of the Bible can be changed because it is verbatim the word of God.  Now what?  We are back where we were at the beginning: whether I should be afraid of Christians and their religion depends on how they decide to interpret their sacred book that clearly contains injunctions that I should be killed and is unclear on how those clear commands should be taken.  At the moment I’m in luck; but tomorrow, who knows?  All in all I think I should fight them rather than bury my head in the sand, hoping that the Christians, in spite of their abominable history in these matters, will be morally decent to me. 


Thought Question: is the alleged divine origin of sacred texts the issue here?  Compare this situation with, say, the US constitution and the slavery provisions.

Thought Question: If you are a Christian, put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and think about how the issue should be addressed Do you think there is a problem here?  If so, can the problem be solved?  If you think there’s no problem, how should our Christian explain that to our hypothetical homosexual idolater?