Why God’s not a moral imperative
God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
I promised you last week that I would offer you full argument in this week’s column for why morality does not need God. Now that my public debate with Professor John Lennox has come and gone – and thank you for those who generously travelled afar to fill the Wits Great Hall – I can write out of my basic argument for those who were not there.
Although the public debate lasted some 90 minutes, the problems with Christian ethics are so incredibly basic that I can confidentially assert I can put Christian ethics on the back foot in under 800 words. Not because I am cocky (though I can live with a bit of shade thrown my way from internet trolls in this summer heat), but because Christian ethics do not live up to critical scrutiny very well.
Is murder wrong because God says so or does God tell you not to murder because it is wrong regardless of what God himself secretly thinks? How about rape? Is rape wrong only once God sends us a command “Thou shalt not rape!”. Or is rape wrong whether or not God commands us to not rape?
Christians – and those of other faiths – have a huge problem answering these questions I’m afraid. They have only two choices. Either they can say rape is wrong because God or Allah or whoever doesn’t want us to rape, or they can say that God reminds us to not rape because rape is necessarily wrong as a matter of universal moral truth that is independent of God. But watch where that leads you though.
If things are right or wrong only once God has given his view, then morality becomes completely arbitrary. We are at that point at the whim of God. If you’re an obedient Christian, this logically forces you to accept that if a missing page from the Bible is found tomorrow that says “Kill all racists on online comments’ sections”, then you must do so. It is God’s command, after all.
Well, Mr and Ms Christian, would you willy-nilly follow commands from God regardless of whether you personally feel comfortable with them? Would you? Is that a “No” I am hearing from you? Good. Because presumably you will only follow moral commands that are rational and meaningful. There is nothing rational or intelligible about a command to kill left-handed people, say, just because some authority instructs you to.
So, we can safely conclude so far that it is not desirable for morality to be based purely, and uncritically, on God’s wishes or on what God had for breakfast. We want more. We want reasons.
There is good news. You could, instead, accept that God tells you not to murder because murder is wrong. Murder is wrong whether or not God exists. Murder is wrong whether or not God says so. And if God says to you you should not murder, he isn’t inventing a fresh, new moral command; he is simply communicating a sensible moral command that already exists widely in our societies for good reasons, in the same way I can communicate sensible rules to children: “Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!”
If I didn’t exist as Johnny’s dad, that wouldn’t make it right for him to kick the living daylights out of his little sister. The wrongness does not depend on me, as dad, saying it is wrong. In the best-case scenario, I simply play the minor cameo role in Johnny’s life by uttering what should and should not be done. The wrongness consists in the violation of her entitlement to respect and dignity by virtue of being a human being, flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up (unless I consent, in some circumstances).
So Christians, and other faiths including Islam and Judaism, must make up their minds: Do you follow commands regardless of what they are? Or do you concede you can tell me why cheating or killing or raping or terrorism are all wrong without making references to supernatural beings? And the truth is you know you can articulate the wrongness of these activities without reference to a God. That means God is not needed for morality. God plays no necessary role in moral reasoning and he plays no necessary role in you puzzling through questions of right and wrong.
I was shocked that Lennox’s main response to me was that he partly agrees. I asked him if he could write me a 500-word essay, without making reference to his Christian God, but still explaining fully in that essay why it is wrong to murder. He said yes, he could. That is a gigantic concession that is going to be archived on YouTube. Yes, I am pleased about that. Many Christians would have said: “No, it is not possible.” I was so taken aback, I thought the moderator surely ought to stop the debate right there. Lennox had crossed the argumentation floor!
But he then explained why it is only a partial concession from where he was coming from. He insisted that God still plays an important role because God gives him, and me, the rationality that, in turn, helps us to reason about morality. So while him and I can both reason about the wrongness of murder with no reference to God, God is responsible for the rational capacity that enables us to reason.
This is a shockingly poor retort, though, and one he has trotted out many times in debates with Richard Dawkins and others. They never called him out on an elementary problem with this response. I don’t even have to say I don’t believe in God’s existence to explain what is unconvincing here. Even if God exists – no, more generously still, let’s pretend that the Christian God with all his bells and whistles really does exist – so what if he gave me the capacity to reason? That doesn’t save the day. It still remains that people can, as Lennox conceded, reason about morality in their daily lives without praying to God, without consulting the Bible, and without talking to their priests. That means God is not necessary for us to distinguish between right and wrong.
Sure, we should give God a bucket of umqombothi for giving me rationality. But the conclusion remains: we can now know rape is wrong without asking God if it is wrong. Where the rationality capacity comes from is a question for another day. In the context of reflecting on the connection between morality and God, we can safely conclude that God plays no epistemic role in the explanation and justification of moral rules that govern our societies.
Lennox’s argument is a bit like saying that just because my mom gave birth to me, she is a necessary part of the explanation of how I solve a maths problem.
Without her, I wouldn’t exist. That is true, but it is an utterly uninteresting truth when you congratulate me on winning a Maths Olympiad. The fact is that my perfect solutions for the maths puzzles are intelligible, and justified, regardless of who or what my mom is or the fact that she gave birth to me.
So thanks, God, for giving me rationality. But sorry dude, that means you are not needed beyond that. Your rationality gift has, sorry for you, rendered you unnecessary in moral reasoning. If you disappeared permanently tomorrow, I’ll still know the difference between right and wrong.
* Eusebius McKaiser hosts “Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser” on Power 98.7 on weekdays from 9am until noon.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.