Is God necessary for Adult Morality?

The Paper Sack Kant could not write himself out of.

It is with quite some regularity that I read or hear a well meaning Christian say "If you don't have God, then anything is permitted! God is necessary as a basis of morality!" This quote is often attributed to Dostoyevsky  in "The Brothers Karamazov", although he never exactly wrote it. Rather, it is a helpful summary of the moral outlook of Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of the book.

Now, as a Christian I think that positing an Infinite Source of Love at the core of the Universe-- the Triune God-- is the most satisfying metaphysical grounding for why altruistic Love and Compassion are essentially good. And furthermore, I find it incredibly instructive to posit that this Love became incarnate in a particular life, so we could see this Love embodied and exemplified.

But that is one of many possible coherent groundings for why Love, altruism, and compassion are moral goods. There are other explanations-- Buddhist explanations, Hindu explanations, and Secular explanations-- that do not posit a personal metaphysical Grounding of Love's "goodness", and yet lead their adherents to practice Love and compassion in a compelling way.

So, strictly speaking, it is not fair to say "If no God, then no morality". It might be more accurate to say "If no moral framework, then no morality". There are plenty of moral frameworks out there that help people live authentic moral lives. I just happen to find the framework that has Jesus at the center to be the most compelling.

However, philosopher Slavoj Zizek is fond of inverting Dostoyevsky's supposed maxim by saying "If God, then anything is permissible".  And we can easily see how this is true as well. For just as God can be seen as a Ground of Love, God can also be seen as a justification for hate and exclusion. History tells us that it has not just been atheist ideologies-- such as Stalin's, Mao's, and Pol Pot's-- that has been responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of millions of dissidents. It has also been Catholic Colonialism, Protestant Nation Building, and Islamic Fundamentalism that has been used to justify the imprisonment, torture, and execution of millions of heretics and infidels.

So, it seems that both God and lack of God can be used to justify either morality or inhumanity. I suppose we could play a numbers game and calculate WHICH has caused more suffering over time, and which has caused more good over time, in proportion to the populations affected. And in the end, I would predict that the religious person would calculate that religion wins, and the irreligious person that lack of religion wins.

But that would kind of miss the point. Wouldn't it?

It's pretty obvious that regardless of whether we have been given freedom by God, or given freedom by a chaotic universe, we are still free to make moral choices or inhuman choices. And we bear the responsibility for our choices and our moral stances in the eyes of those we love, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of the universe at large.

At the risk of sounding too Kantian, there seems to be an "ought" at every moment that compels us to choose altruism or selfishness, compassion or apathy, service for the other or hatred of the different. And we have the choice of listening to the "ought", or not. Regardless of how we explain the  "ought"-- whether we posit a God or not-- we still have the mature, adult choice to follow or ignore.

In fact, if someone was to drastically alter their ethical stance based on whether they suddenly realized God was real (if previously an atheist) or God was unreal (if previously religious), then that would mean that they didn't have an authentic moral stance in the first place. To be authentic, it seems to me that a person would need to formulate their ethics in such a way that they would choose and act using the same basic criteria regardless of whether they did so in the sight of God, or in the sight of the Abyss.

Now, I'm not saying every single choice would be the same, but they would be motivated by the same underlying drives. For instance, let's say my core motivation is something like altruism and compassion for sentient beings. If I had access to the elements of bread and wine blessed in the Eucharist, I might reserve the sacrament to share with sick humans in the hospital or nursing home (if I was a Christian and believed in the sacrament)-- OR-- I might use it to feed a hungry animal I found in a park (if I was a materialist who saw it merely as food).

But either way, the core motive would be the same: Sharing something life giving with another sentient being that is in need.

I say this all because I find it to be patent B.S. when someone who is Christian/Religious says "I would act totally different if I thought that God did not exist!", and also when an atheist says "Man, I would want to turn my life around and get straight if I thought God existed!".

If there is a God who is real, who is something like a Parent to us, I would imagine that God would hopefully be a better parent than I am. And I, as flawed as I am, do not want my children to act in certain moral ways only when they think I can see them. I would want them eventually to own their own moral stance regardless of whether I am in the next room, in the grave, or in prison (not that I am planning on prison any time soon).

I would assume that God wants us to stand on our own moral two feet at some point, and not have to rely on God as a constant crutch to validate our choices. God would want us to BE good, not just ACT good.

And, of course, if there is no God, the same is true. We must own our own moral choices for them to truly be MORAL choices, and not just the cosmic equivalent of the carrot and the stick. Of course moral development is a process, and to help humans turn into moral creatures, the carrot and the stick needs to be used at lower developmental levels. But the goal is not to stay there. The goal is to evolve and develop to the point that we are self-actualized, creative, moral beings who live into their full potential.

The important thing is not how we explain WHY we are moral, but that we actually ARE moral. This does not mean explanations are meaningless. On the contrary, explanations can help us immensely in how we implement morality. It just means that explanations are derivative, and based on concrete action to help others.

Or, to put it in Biblical terms: "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." [1 John 4.7-8]

Deontology. The older I get the more I respect Kant, even though his prose is so confusing he couldn't write himself out of a wet paper sack.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.