Morality


I consider myself an atheist — while I’m not certain that there is no God, I think it’s pretty unlikely that there is. (Some intelligent design arguments make me less certain that there is no God than I would be had I not heard the arguments, so that’s why, even though I’m an atheist, I think intelligent design arguments are worth taking seriously.) 

But some people have questioned my claim that I’m an atheist. For example, in response to my claim that there are objective moral truths, someone weighed in with this:

When someone talks about not believing in God, but believing in some sort of objective reality like “morality existing in the universe,” it just makes me think that they are just rejecting the cartoon “God” of so many Christians, rather than the real God.  To me that objective morality or directionality of the universe IS God.  Get rid of the beard and the clouds…  Love.  Creativity.  Truth. Morality…  In my mind if you believe in an objective reality of these things, you do believe in some sort of “god”, perhaps just not a personal aspect of “it”.  

Well, I certainly don’t believe in a cartoon version of a Christian God. But I don’t believe in the Christian God either, as long as one construes the Christian God to be the God who became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and died for our sins, or even just if one construes the Christian God to be the God that will provide at least some people with an afterlife in communion with him. 

So I don’t believe in the Christian God. Do I believe in some sort of God? Well, it depends on how people define God. I believe in love, and I believe in objective morality, and I believe in creativity — if one wants to simply define God as love, or morality, or creativity, then yes I believe in God. But normally when I think of God, I think of a being that created the physical universe, and I don’t think that love or morality or creativity created the universe. Also, normally when I think of God, I think of a being that is immensely powerful and knowledgeable, and I don’t think that love or morality or creativity is immensely powerful or knowledgeable. In fact, I don’t think it even makes sense to say that love or morality or creativity is knowledgeable — this is known in philosophical circles as a category mistake

But if it turns out that there are lots of theists who say that they believe in God simply because they believe in love or morality or creativity, then I guess I’d happy to join their side, and say that I believe in God too. I would worry, though, that I was misleading people when I said that, because there are at least some people out there (like me right now) who have a quite different conception of God than that, and that’s what leads some of us to say that we’re atheists.

In the second comment to this post at Thinking Christian, Jospeh A. writes:

On the flipside, I can say that I often come across atheists who tend to display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand, or at least lead to. … Watch how often you’ll come across atheists who talk about good and evil, or even right and wrong with regards to morals as if there were really an objective, ultimate standard in play. 

I’m willing to admit that there are atheists who display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand. But I don’t think the existence of atheists who believe in objective morality is necessarily a good example of atheists having a disconnect. I am an atheist, and I believe in objective morality, and I don’t think I’m being incoherent in doing so.

This gets at a standard Philosophy 101 topic, the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is killing an innocent person wrong because God says that it’s wrong, or does God say that killing an innocent person is wrong because it really is objectively wrong? Some people, like Joseph A., believe that God determines what is objectively morally wrong or right. If God says that it’s morally permissible to rape children, then it’s morally permissible. In contrast, I say that, even if God exists, the objective moral standards aren’t set by God. If God were to say that raping children is morally permissible, that wouldn’t make it morally permissible; it would just mean that God is incorrect. 

Most theists think that it’s impossible for God to be incorrect, so in practice God would always prescribe the correct moral view. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that God always prescribes the correct moral view that God is the source of morality. 

Of course, I haven’t conclusively argued for this, and I don’t have such a conclusive argument — nor, in my opinion, does the other side. This is one reason that it’s such an enduring philosophical dilemma. I raise the issue here mainly because I don’t want theists to just assume that all atheists think, or have to think, that there’s no objective morality.