Monday, April 07, 2008

Does Morality Depend on God?

Does Morality Depend on God?

Crabsallover submission for Philosophy Gym at Oxford University

Morality are the principles on which people make decisions about how to tackle issues relating to right and wrong. If morality does depend on a Judeo-Christian-Islamic (Abrahamic) God it should be the main (if not the only) source from which people can receive guidance on moral decisions.

I will argue that morality is not dependent on any God given moral absolutes but are instead dependent on mans' own ideas about morality, a mix of moral relativism and moral objectivism.


Theists say that if there is no God to lay down what is right and wrong then things are right or wrong only because we say so. Killing could be right or wrong depending on what we decide. Without God, say theists, moral chaos will result.

Plato (~400BC) in the Euthyphro dialogue asked:-

1) Is killing wrong because God says so? OR

2) Does God say killing is wrong because it is wrong?

If the theist says 1) - killing is wrong because God decrees it to be so - he is advocating the Divine Command Theory of Ethics. But God could have commanded killing to be morally good and we should have to obey that rule - since it comes from God. So morality based on God could be quite arbitrary. But the theist will argue that God would only ever command what is good. God would never say that killing is good - because it isn’t. The conclusion is that morality is both arbitrary and independent of God.

If the theist answers 2) - God says killing is wrong because it is wrong - then atheists could also help themselves to this morality without reference to God at all. Morality is independent of God.

Society today does not have moral roots based wholly in Christianity instead they are based on Greek culture where morals were separated from religion. Zeus did not link religion to morals. Other societies such as the Romans have had ethical systems that are not based upon a divine command theory. Many morals are based on the Ancient Greek philosophers who said that murder and stealing was wrong. These ideas was later redacted by Abrahamic religions and embellishments added such as restrictions on types of food.

Ideas in the Bible seem not a good guide to morality. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. God's advice to parents - if children talk back to them - is to kill them. God says we must stone people to death for numerous crimes including heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images and sorcery.

If we follow some rules (eg do not kill) but don't follow other rules (stone people who work on the Sabbath) then we have either made an arbitrary choice or are making our choice based upon some other moral yardstick. If we need to decide what to use and what to ignore by means of reason, we might as well reason our way to our morality without reference to the Bible at all.

Jesus did teach some good moral codes such as the Golden Rule “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.” but the source of this is in 5th BC Greece (Epictetus & Thales).

If God were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers. Theists allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational or critical enough about specific secular ideologies.

Today there is a positive correlation between a society’s level of religiosity and the prevalence of all sorts of ills – crime, illiteracy, mortality rates etc.

Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. Morality of Islam eg with regard to women, is often at variance to that taught by Christian morality.

Some theists believe that nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research are wrong. Researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature. Why are these innovations playing God and not others (eg vaccination)? The theist distinction seems arbitary.

If morality does not depend on God then what does it depend on? As a Humanist I think that moral values are founded on human nature and experience alone which depend on guiding principles not dogmatic rules. I thinks some moral principles are simply matters of personal preference (moral relativism) but others may not vary much from place to place or time to time (moral objectivism). Morals should be based on reason, experience, empathy and respect for others and the Golden Rule. I think that it is more moral to think for oneself, and to make responsible and independent choices without divine authority or the hope of divine reward in an afterlife.


I argue that morality does not depend on God or a Divine Command Theory of Ethics. Many morals today were originally based on ideas from the Ancient Greeks and not from Abrahamic religions. Many of the Bibles moral strictures (eg stoning people for adultery) seem actually immoral. Evidence about morality in the world today suggests that atheistically inclined nations may be more moral than religious nations. Moral disagreements between different religions have resulted in balkanisation of people from Belfast and Bagdad. I argue that Humanism based on a mix of moral relativism and moral objectivism is a good way to lead a moral life.

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