Continuing with my series on presuppositions that lead to credulity or incredulity, I ask the question is morality objective and absolute? Your answer to this question will greatly influence your perspective on the existence of God.
A rock bottom foundational assumption of the theist is that morality must have an objective source. To believe otherwise is to cast oneself into the chaos of moral relativity. C. S. Lewis captures this argument in Mere Christianity. In fact, I suspect that most modern Christians have absorbed this way of thinking from C. S. Lewis if not directly, by osmosis.
Conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. –C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis argues that because we feel like there is an objective moral ruler that we measure ourselves from it must exist and its source must be God. Now, I will grant, this perspective is understandable. Humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. The question is what is the source of that sense?
The assumption of an objective morality is so foundational that very few believers ever consider to question it. The threat of moral relativism is the specter that keeps them from evaluating its validity. Many arguments between believers and atheists spin round and round in circles because of not understanding each other’s presuppositions on this point alone.
This argument for God based on conscience that C. S. Lewis uses is called the argument from morality. It is important to understand that the assertion of moral order is taken as a given a prori.
Argument[s] from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. — Wikipedia
The argument from objective moral truths for the existence of God goes like this
- If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
- Morality is objective and absolute.
- Therefore, God must exist (source: Wikipedia)
Now here is the thing, the second assertion is completely taken for granted. Nothing objective in nature suggests that morality is an absolute. Although differing cultures agree on some basic broad strokes of morality like “murder is bad,” they do not agree on many particulars like the treatment of women, the justification for war, etc.
What is the source of morality?
Back to my statement earlier that humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. How can this be explained without a deity? As in many things believers question atheists about evolution is the answer. Humans have evolved to have a moral conscience. We instinctively know some moral truths, cooperation over antagonism, do not mate with a sibling, murder is bad. This evolved conscience helped the human race survive against its competitors.
Culture then adds on top of these innate moral instincts. Individual cultures value certain morals above others. Some cultures value strength and honor while others value service and humility.
I argue that morality progresses. We as a the human race or even an individual culture recognize past mistakes and make improvements. In short morality itself evolves. The greatest case in point, is slavery. Who today in 2016 would make the argument that slavery is acceptable let alone based on inherent differences in the “humanness” of the races? We recognized this terrible mistake, realized that all humans have inherent worth and abolished slavery to the extent that now anyone who communicates racist attitudes is considered backward and ignorant not to mention morally repugnant.
An evolutionary morality married with progressive cultural mores explains both the similarities and differences in morality between cultures today. In fact, it explains this much better than an objective absolute morality. For if morality is objective how does one explain the change over time?
Christian morality has not remained static through history. The above example of slavery is again my prime argument. I assure you if you are a modern day Christian woman you would not want to be placed in a time machine and travel back to the first century. It would be unpleasant for you. Nor would a Christian of color wish to live in almost any time in history prior to today. Notice also the dramatic change in moral tone from the Old to the New testaments. Morality is fluid and influenced by the surrounding culture whether one acknowledges this or not.
This is why two ethical questions of our time are of great importance: the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement. I believe the church is on the wrong side of history on these issues. Why? Because morality progresses. We recognized our mistakes like marginalizing minority groups and we improve. Looking backwards to a 2000 year old document set in the context of first century culture and morality will not help us navigate these modern ethical questions.
On the fear of relativism, morality is relative it always has been. * We must accept that. Even within a particular faith group their are differences of opinion on morality. The very fact that we have different moral intuitions, even among similar faith groups is evidence for the non-existence of an objective moral truth.
Does this mean that we cannot argue between cultures over progress? No. We very much can and should push for progress on the ethical issues of our day. The world is shrinking by the day. We will have to cooperate and we are likely to disagree. But having the debate in the first place is already progress.
Can one be good without God?
Finally, the root of the believer’s discomfort on these issues comes from the assumption that one cannot be good without God. The believer is taught that human beings though made in the image of God are fundamentally broken by sin and incapable of good on their own.
To atheist ears the idea that Christians are moral only because God told them to be is an indictment. If the only thing holding the believer back from a murderous rampage is their belief in a non-corporeal judge, is this goodness?
I have been a Christian. I have held some of the above believer’s opinions. I then met a number of atheists who love their families, contribute to charities and give back to their communities, in short, very good people. I am now one of them. And though, I am still uncomfortable calling myself a good person due to the prior indoctrination, my morality has remained virtually the same. Just a lot less guilt.
* Update: I am entirely too flippant in this paragraph. This post is an argument against the theistic argument that morality is impossible without a god, specifically premise 1 above. It is not a complete theory of natural morality. The point I was attempting to make is that societies’ morality progresses and likely at different rates relative to one another.
I actually do think there are some objective moral truths. Not in the absolute sense but in the sense that humanity as a whole moves towards consensus like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the moral arc of history bending toward justice.” The simplest example is “The unnecessary suffering of sentient beings should be avoided.” I will be the first to admit I have an incomplete theory of natural morality. It is a work in progress for me. As a skeptic I suspect that all moral theories are incomplete.
The thrust of the post is to say that the source of morality is us, human beings, and not a theistic god. We will get it wrong at times but through the process of error correction morality will progress.