The Case for Morality and God
While moderating a website that has a preponderance of Conservatives and Christians posting, I came upon a post by a fellow I shall refer to as Captain X. The Gentleman stated that he was a commissioned West Point officer who had served overseas and had now returned to civilian life. Captain X had taken offense to a group of people who had been discussing the topic of atheism and firmly disagreed with the prevailing group by expounding that non-believers could be virtuous, brave, and patriotic. Adamant that the adage, "there are no atheists in foxholes," was fallacious, Captain X, in a passionate but reasoned manner, made his thesis that his morality was independent of God and that he had served to the best of his abilities without the promptings of a Divine Overlord.
His thoughtful words and some less than gracious comments by believers caused me to think about the relationship between morality and God. As the concepts are not mutually exclusive, I considered what the relationship was between the moral "ought" and the divine command. I asked myself if ethical duties grow organically from civilizations or regimes or are they somehow embedded a priori in our collective consciousness. Finally, are such constraints ultimately matters of unyielding obligation or just ethical suggestions more indicative of taste, fashion, or personal will? Can one be good without God, or does the meaning of goodness in a Postmodern Age ultimately dissolve existentially as a child's tears in a freezing rain?
The argument for Captain X to consider is this: Since stating that he is indeed patriotic and has made strong contributions to his nation (which I firmly believe he has -- my own son is a West Point commissioned officer), why does he categorically believe that the very concepts of patriotism, nobility, and service to one's people are necessarily a good thing -- since those qualities in a similarly educated Nazi officer are equally compelling? If there is no outside objective standard to measure both competing claims against, then the value of these claims are mere opinion -- and therein the life devoted to pleasure or racial world domination is commensurate with the life devoted to freedom and selfless service. The honorable Nazi, then, is he who manifests Hitler's will and your patriotic service to America's ideal is qualitatively no better or worse than his.
More fully, we must consider Aristotle's distinction that a Good Man is not necessarily a Good Citizen. If there is no God, then morality is normative -- it is dependent upon inclination, convention and agreement. If this relativism is true, then the Good Nazi and the Good Man are identical. The theist (believer) however, would hold to an objective moral law that informs us that an SS officer who machine guns innocent children or herds them into extermination camps by sole virtue of their race is guilty of an unspeakable evil and therein is by no means a Good Man. Conversely, an SS officer who saved such children and violated the normative morality of Nazism would be a traitor to his regime's morality. He would be immoral by the conventional yardstick of that society and indeed be worthy of derision. His Goodness as a Man would render him a Bad Citizen of National Socialism -- but only if there is an all-encompassing moral standard that stands outside us. As Dostoevsky so succinctly put it: "If there is no God, then all is permitted." In a godless world, justice then lies within the interest of the stronger.
Without an Archimedean objective moral law to measure our actions against, we cannot justify Good and Evil because they lie wholly in the world of nomos -- opinion and consensus. If there is, however, an unwavering objective moral law, then there must be a moral lawgiver to promulgate such law and we are obligated to observe it. We cannot, however, owe such an obligation to an impersonal force -- only to a monumental Personality that can will such law. Without Him, the entire moral edifice collapses in upon itself and we are left to languish in an ethical abyss where morality and law are ultimately utilitarian and capricious. Fortunately, most atheists will not travel the road this far, since the full ramifications of this raw atheism renders their considered judgments and ethics internally incoherent. Everyone who has ever been the victim of injustice expressly understands in the marrow of their beings when he has been wronged. Such a moral compass seems to be written into our very beings; and try as we might, its demands upon us are overtly compelling, unless we manage to silence its voice within us by descending into a realm beneath our own nature.
Please don't misunderstand me here: I am not saying that atheists cannot be moral. In fact, I know many principled atheists who lead exemplary lives -- some more so than Christians. What I am saying is that atheists cannot foundationally justify their moral structure other than as a matter of personal or aggregate opinion. And ultimately, their very tools of reason, language and argumentation are rooted in the coherency of a Universe whose mathematics, laws, ineffable complexity, magnitudes of order, information, and design are the products of an Elegant and Magnificent Mind.
Glenn Fairman writes from Southern California and blogs as The Eloquent Professor at www.palookavillepost.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for feats of sophistry.