Morality as Natural: Why the “I don’t need a god to be moral” critique fails

Rather than continue the series on the moral argument with further takeaways—they are too numerable to include in a single post, and it would begin to look silly having a 10-part series—I have decided to develop these ideas as separate arguments in their own posts. I will make reference to claims made in the series on The Moral Argument, with reference specifically to Plato’s Euthyphro.

I want to begin by reiterating and expanding a bit on the contrast between the sophist’s view of human origins and Plato’s, because this shows a central contrast between contemporary Christians and atheists in their perspectives.

Christian Morality as Infantile, and Dangerous

The most frequent claim by atheists—from the everyday Twitter user to those with a huge hearing—is that religious morality (I’ll focus on Christian morality, since I’m a Christian) is childish.

“I don’t need a god to tell me not to murder. I can figure that out all on my own.”

Such a perspective is developed further in a 1961 article by the British philosopher Patrick Nowell-Smith entitled “Morality: Religious and Secular” in which he argues that religious morality is infantile. He defines infantility as being obsessed with laws rather than the more mature view that laws are meant to serve a purpose, and so may have exceptions, require development, changes, etc. Thus, Christian morality is infantile because we obey God like little children obey their parents—without knowing why, or even, perhaps, daring to question the commands.

Nowell-Smith doesn’t think religious morality is evil, just childish. But we could take things a step further and say with Steven Weinberg, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

The immaturity of those obedient to religious precepts can cause them to do terrible things: from simple standoffishness and close-mindedness, to acts of terrible violence.

Prefatory Notes

We can respond to these claims in a number of ways. There are elements in these critiques that are right, but they are mixed with error. And this becomes evident if we understand Christianity as more akin to Plato’s ethics than sophist ethics.

But first some throat clearing: Weinberg is partially right in a number of ways. Some of these will take us too far afield for this post, but we may come back to those in another article. The one that matters for us is that religion does indeed encourage decent people to do terrible things. But saying that religion makes people do bad things is kind of like saying that drinks cause people to have auto accidents. It is true that drinks can cause people to have auto accidents, but those drinks are most often alcoholic. Coffee is a drink, and probably helps prevent more accidents than it causes. So, too, Weinberg says that religion can make people good people do bad things. Yes, false religion and falsely held true religion. I may be accused of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here, but that will have to be dealt with elsewhere.[1]

As the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga says in a piece on the evidential problem of evil, it is strange to critique theism or religion removed from the particulars of all the other elements of that religion. He refers to this as “austere theism”—a religion whose adherents number in the zeroes. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nordic, Greek, Roman, druidic, Wiccan, etc. etc.—these are all classified under “religions.” They are dramatically different. To critique all of them together is easy and essentially useless: Like critiquing drinks for causing accidents. Or complaining about objects for causing pain.

Morality as Natural

With that out of the way, how do we respond to the critique that Christian morality is infantile?

Unfortunately, people on both sides of the debate seem to agree on an erroneous understanding of the source of morality. It in fact comes from a problem noted by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus: For any moral claim, you can always ask, “Why?” Eventually, it seems we always end up with either “There is no reason”[2] or “Because God says so and he’ll punish you for failing to obey.”

Nowell-Smith’s claim that mature people understand the reasons for morality is not the same as saying that mature people will always agree with that morality. One may know perfectly well that action (A) will lead to terrible results for society, but may do it anyway. Do I even need to list out examples for us to recognize that this is true? They are legion.

So, Nowell-Smith might be right in terms of knowing what morality is about, but he seems overly optimistic regarding how much concern individuals have about morality. And this is where a Christian might immediately yell, “See?! You need God to make sure people obey!”

While I think the Christian’s intuition is right—we need morality to be more than (broadly agreed-upon) opinion—to make morality simply God’s opinion, enforceable by his power to punish and reward, does not solve the problem. That casts us into the Euthyphro Dilemma which causes some significant trouble (see the posts on “The Moral Argument” for details).

What is right about the Christian’s intuition is that morality needs a ground that is somehow beyond human beings. The problem is that we keep trying to answer the question of “Why?” with the belief that power—the power to control, punish, reward, in short “lording it over”—must be the ground of morality, or the most fundamental quality of being. What I mean is that we see power as the primary, and therefore the most valuable, of qualities. I’ll write up a separate piece about that issue, because it is perhaps the most important basic idea to grasp when speaking about the one, true God.

But let us say that God is not first and foremost to be understood as powerful, but as loving, self-giving, creative.[3] If that is the case, then how might we answer the “Why?” question?

When we ask, “Why?” we tend to think of motivations, and thus desires. And insofar as our desires are fundamentally aimed toward power—that is, the capacity for acquiring pleasure for ourselves and avoiding pain—then we will ultimately answer the question of “Why?” for morality with an appeal to power (punishment or reward).

But morality isn’t grounded in God’s power, but in his love, his self-giving creation. And so the appeal for morality is not that you’ll be punished for disobeying or rewarded for obeying, but that morality is tied to our very being. For God created us in love, and made us in his image. Therefore, to sin is merely to act against God’s nature, our own nature, and against the nature of the world itself.

Of course, that we are acting against our nature[4] or the nature of the world is not obvious. The world seems to run on the power to possess, control, take. The world system is a mass of life and death struggle into which we fell. But “[b]y faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb 11:3 ESV). The visible is the realm of power. But God’s Word—Jesus, who overcame death—has overcome the world.

The Response

So, we find in Christianity a transcendent ground that stands above human opinion or even human consensus, because it is the very stuff of which we have been made. This hearkens back to Augustine’s neoplatonic metaphysics: being is itself good, which means that morality is natural, in the deepest sense of the term. To do good is to bolster one’s very being (think C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).

And so it is not surprising that everyone from Sam Harris to your unruly teenage neighbor has a sense that murder is bad, and can even reason through complex and rich moral ideas. What they lack is a ground. Which is why utilitarianism and moralities closely related to utilitarianism are perhaps the most popular these days—the deepest foundation we can think of in a world in which there is no God is social benefit. That is, of course, until the individual disagrees. And if the individual asks “Why?”, what ultimate answer can be given? Punishment or reward from society.

I’d rather be infantile before God than before society, since the former is far greater than the latter.

But far better to get away from morality that must appeal to power for its authority. Christianity grounds morality in love, which is the root of our being.

So how does the Christian answer Nowell-Smith’s claim of infantility, or Weinberg’s claim that religion makes good people do bad things?

Infantility has already been answered. Like a child, we may initially obey God because we are seeking to avoid punishment and gain reward, but once we come to understand that his commands—the greatest being to love God and love neighbor—are instructions on how to become fully what we are, our fear is no longer about punishment, but fear of our own attraction to un-being, nothingness, death. That is why the wages of sin is death—since sin is battling against our very being, death is the obvious result—but the self-giving creative act of God is eternal life—becoming fully what God has and is creating us to be results in life so full that it never ends.

Does religion cause good people to do bad things? Absolutely. Do good people who claim to be acting in the name of Jesus do bad things? Definitely.[5] False religions and false worship—aimed toward that which is most powerful and seeks to emulate that power—will surely encourage people to lean on that power to justify acting upon selfish inclinations. In fact, they worship a selfish god, so why wouldn’t they do selfish things—such as killing noncombatants to secure a place in paradise, tribalism, hateful accusation[6] without offering grace such as securing power through church division and division of the Church.

But being identified with the crucified and risen Jesus, worshiping the self-giving creator Father, through the Holy Spirit who binds the Church together in love—such can only encourage self-sacrificial love on behalf of even one’s enemies. Why? Because we see in the other person the image of the God we worship. And we identify with him who, on the cross, asked for forgiveness for his enemies. And we worship through the One who draws people together in love.

Would that make people do bad things? Surely not. But we are prone to (willful) misunderstanding. We twist. Because, despite what Weinberg says, we are all a mix of good and evil. And the bad is simply a twisting, confusion, breaking of the good (of being). Since evil is merely a twisting or a corruption of the good, when we come across a great good, the opportunity for evil to twist and corrupt grows. That is why, perhaps, those who initially seek power may begin with great ideals, and once achieving power—a place in which greater good can be done—very often and very quickly become corrupt.

A Low View of the Divine

The study of Plato’s Euthyphro in the posts on The Moral Argument noted how a low view of the divine is organically tied to the belief that “might makes right,” which is the sophists’ claim.[7] We Christians have fallen for this view of power as central—which is why one of the biggest divisions within evangelicalism is a question of God’s lording-it-over power in relation to his creation. My claim is that viewing God as fundamentally power(ful) and love as a happy, but secondary or tertiary quality, is in fact a low view of God, akin to what Euthyphro held. This low view led to the fatal critique of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Plato warned against this almost 2400 years ago. Genesis 1 showed it false well before Plato ever came on the scene.

We might perhaps need a bit more development of this idea that love is closer to the heart of who God is than power. For it might sound like I’m venturing into a universalist Santa Claus god, or perhaps a god who lacks omnipotence. I’m not. In fact, in a strange way, if God is primarily loving, it elevates his power and the demands of his holiness. That is, looking at God as primarily loving gives us a higher view of God. But that will have to wait for another entry.

[1] I could make a simple appeal to Jesus as the center of Scripture, his self-sacrifice and concern even for his enemies, but a critic would simply retort with references to the flood, Jericho, etc., in which God calls for violence. So, even though Jesus being the One to whom all Scripture points is correct and does, I think, deal with the problem, the meaning of this claim has to be fleshed out more to deal with a thoughtful critic of Christianity, which I will do below. Of course, I won’t deal with the violence of Israel’s conquering army or the widespread destruction apparently caused by God himself. That would require more work, but I will say that I do not think there is a real problem here.

[2] “There is no reason” is the substance of claims such as “society dictates such a moral claim” or “I feel like it”—that is, there is no reason beyond mere opinion.

[3] This is not a simple idea to grasp because it is terribly counterintuitive, or at least counter our habits of thinking. But we might say that God’s power arises from his love, rather than love being an admittedly happy, but still secondary or tertiary, property added to someone who is primarily power. Such an idea appears in poetry and stories, in which love is said to conquer all, even death. The resurrection of Jesus proves such a fanciful idea to be based in truth. The doctrine of the Trinity shows that the historical event of the resurrection is grounded in God’s very being.

[4] In Christians circles, we often speak of our having a “sin nature.” This term makes me a bit nervous, because it makes it sound as if we are fundamentally evil creatures (i.e. that God made us evil). Sin is unnatural. Having a “sin nature” therefore means that we have something like a cancer within us that is undermining our being. Of course, the point of the term “sin nature” is to emphasize how we are incapable of curing ourselves of this disease, but rather tend to act in such a way as to encourage the growth of the cancer. That I agree with wholeheartedly.

[5] One of the Ten Commandments is against this very thing (the prohibition of taking the Lord’s name in vain has nothing to do with bad words, and everything to do with declaring that one is acting as a worshiper of God and acting in a way that does not line up with his nature), so it shouldn’t be surprising that it happens.

[6] “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser.”

[7] It also happens to be the claim of what seems to be the origin stories of the Ancient Near East and the contemporary materialistic evolution/utilitarianism marriage.