Thinking about God and Morality
Do we really need God to maintain a sense of morality? Christians say yes, and secularists say no. If you'd like to take a peek at a fine discussion between the two sides, consider this debate between John Frame and Paul Kurtz...
[John Frame:] If God goes not exist, says Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "everything is permitted," which is one way of saying that notions of good and evil lose their force when people cease to acknowledge God. The course of our society suggests he's right: we've grown noticeably more secular over the past thirty years, banning God from public education and the marketplace of ideas, and our culture's moral tone has declined. Is this merely historical coincidence, or is there a profound relationship between ethics and belief in God?As always, I'd encourage you to read the whole thing. (inluding Kurtz's position, along with rebuttals by each). Then (and only then), I'd really like to hear from someone who finds Kurtz' argument compelling.
Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible – the moral evil of the act. Yet evil is unquestionably there, just as moral good is unquestionably present when a traveler stops to help the stranded motorist on a dangerous stretch of highway. Good and bad are unseen but real, much as God is said to be. Does that suggest a close tie between two mysteries, moral values and God?
Before answering that question, let me make a few clarifications. The highest moral and ethical values are absolute. Anyone who thinks it sufficient to have merely relative standards, based on what individuals or groups feel is right, won't see a connection between God and morality. Of course, some rules are relative to situations. In some countries we drive on the right, in others on the left. But relative standards alone simply won't do. Fundamental moral principles – don't murder, don't steal, and so on – must be objective, binding on all, regardless of private opinions or emotions.
If someone robs you, your outrage is not merely a feeling, like feeling hot or feeling sad. Nor is it merely an opinion generally accepted within your society, as if a society of thieves could legitimately have a different opinion. Rather, you recognize that the thief has done something objectively wrong, something that no one should ever do, regardless of how he feels or society thinks.
A second clarification: If I say that ethics requires God, I do not mean that atheists and agnostics never recognize moral standards. Even the Bible recognizes that they do (Romans 1:32). Indeed some say they believe in absolute principles, though that, of course, is rare. I contend, rather, that an atheist or agnostic is not able to give an adequate reason for believing in absolute moral principles. And when people accept moral principles without good reason, they hold to them somewhat more loosely than others who accept them upon a rational basis. Nor do I wish to suggest that people who believe in God are morally perfect. Scripture tells us that isn't so (1 John 1:8-10). The demons are monotheists (James 2:19), but belief in the one God doesn't improve their morals. Something more is needed to become good, and that, according to the Bible, is a new heart, given by God's grace in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 2:8-10).
Why then should we believe that morality depends on God? To say God exists is to say that the world is created and controlled by a person – one who thinks, speaks, acts rationally, loves and judges the world. To deny that God exists is to say that the world owes its ultimate origin and direction to impersonal objects or forces, such as matter, motion, time, and chance. But impersonal objects and forces cannot justify ethical obligations. A study of matter, motion, time, and chance will tell you what is up to a point, but it will not tell you what you ought to do. An impersonal universe imposes no absolute obligations.
But if this is God's world, a personal universe, then we do have reason to believe in absolute moral principles. For one thing, as Immanuel Kant pointed out, we need an omnipotent God to enforce moral standards, to make sure that everyone is properly rewarded and punished. Moral standards without moral sanctions don't mean much. More important, we should consider the very nature of moral obligation. We cannot be obligated to atoms, or gravity, or evolution, or time, or chance; we can be obligated only to persons. Indeed, we typically learn morality from our parents, and we stick to our standards at least partly out of loyalty to those we love. An absolute standard, one without exceptions, one that binds everybody, must be based on loyalty to a person great enough to deserve such respect. Only God meets that description.
My own experience has been that while very many people embrace Kurtz' position (rejecting Frame's), very few of them can actually give any sustained rationale for it (which is precisely Frame's critique). I'd love to hear from someone who thinks they can...