God’s Morality

In a common critique of atheists, theists often insist that it is impossible to have objective morality without invoking a deity. Although it is certainly difficult to justify an objective moral compass grounded completely in reason, adding God does nothing to solve the problem. Plato, famously, undermined basing morality on God.


“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

Steven Pinker in his fabulous New York Times piece on morality first alerted me to this about two years ago.

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

If anyone is interested, Steven Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein, has a new novel that uses this argument has well. Goldstein, of course, deserves her own recognition as an intellectual separate from Pinker.

Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn’t. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn’t have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary—he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good—and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously.

Yet, people do take “his choices” seriously. It is not just that they insult nonbelievers, but they try to set public policy that confirms to what they think God wants. Also, in our private lives the religious often stigmatize individuals and groups that don’t conform to their set of morals. This leads, obviously, to dangerous fissures in society. It also helps impede progress on establishing and improving secular morals.

Even if God did have morals that were just and we could agree to live by those standards it still leaves the question of how we would know what those morals actually are. After all, different religions and even different denominations don’t agree on what his answers to our moral questions are. A new study by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago found that man’s morals aren’t made in the image of God but God’s morals are made in man’s – right down to the individual. Blogger Ed Yong reports on this study.


Psychological studies have found that people are always a tad egocentric when considering other people’s mindsets. They use their own beliefs as a starting point, which colours their final conclusions. Epley found that the same process happens, and then some, when people try and divine the mind of God. Their opinions on God’s attitudes on important social issues closely mirror their own beliefs. If their own attitudes change, so do their perceptions of what God thinks. They even use the same parts of their brain when considering God’s will and their own opinions.

Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs.
The arrogant idea that theists know God’s mind and morals needs further challenge. It is increasingly clear that faith contributes nothing to cosmology and nothing to biology. No thinking person goes to the Church for answers to scientific questions. Let moral philosophy be the final discipline that religion removes its clutches from.
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