Does Morality Depend on God?


I have rarely engaged in a debate with a theist where the issue of morality justification has not come up.  The theist’s complaint typically takes the following form.

If there is no God, then why is it wrong to murder and  steal? Even if you don’t want to murder and steal, on what grounds can you criticize someone who does, since morals must be completely relative and arbitrary to an atheist?  Without God there is no criterion for deciding what is good and evil beyond the whim of the individual. In other words, without God there is no way to answer the question, “Why is x wrong?”  As a believer in the one true God, I know why, and I know why in absolute terms.

Of course, most thoughtful theists recognize that non-theistic ethical systems can and do exist, and that in fact most atheists hold moral values not entirely unlike their own.  Indeed, most ethical systems the world over, and throughout history, share a considerable core set of values on issues relating, for example, to minimizing the suffering of innocents, and putting the needs of family, friends, and community ahead of one’s own selfish interests.  So, the debate here is not so much about whose particular body of moral codes is the right one. Rather, the debate centers on meta-ethics; that is, the means by which people justify their choice of an ethical system.  The theist can accept that an atheist might believe that murder is morally wrong based on one or another atheistic ethical system.  The theist’s complaint, however, is that the atheist’s ethical system is completely arbitrary; that the atheist cannot justify using his ethical code beyond saying, “Just because I want to.”

So it is this meta-ethical angst that is behind the theist’s heart-felt question, “Why is anything wrong if there is no God?”   Alarmingly, more than a few ask this out of a genuine view that without the fear of punishment and the promise of reward there is no reason to be good.  They hold a crude kind of when-the-cat’s-away-the-mice-will-play outlook that equates “good” to that which is rewarded, and “bad” to that which is punished.  For these folks, without someone holding carrots and sticks, there is no reason to be good; no way to know what is good. Thankfully, most thoughtful theists recognize the inherent amorality of such a simplistic approach; instead, they go to great lengths to explain not only that God is perfectly good, but that He forms the necessary “ground” of goodness, and that therefore morality really does depend on Him.  (That being said, it is surprising how often otherwise thoughtful theists will appeal to brute power when challenged to morally justify some Old Testament God-ordered atrocity, such as when they argue that since God made us, He can do as He pleases—just as a potter can do as he pleases with his clay pots.)

The thesis of this article is not only that morality does not depend on God, but that any ethical or meta-ethical theory based on such a claim necessarily commits several fatal errors: first, it necessarily commits one to an arbitrary and indefensible definition of right and wrong (which is ironic given the theist’s charge that it is non-theistic ethics that is necessarily arbitrary); second, it makes any definition of “good” vacuously, and—as a guide for human behavior—dangerously tautological; and third, such a meta-ethical view necessarily leads to ethical systems that value unthinking obedience to rules above all else.

The Problem of Circularity

The hidden assumption in the theist challenge is that, unlike the atheist, the theist can coherently answer the question, “Why is x good?”  A common debating error is to let this go unchallenged, while moving directly to a defense of an atheistic meta-ethics.  Generally, the theist’s answer to the Why question is because it is God’s will. To this a fair response is, “Why follow God’s will?” Now to this the theist’s response can be either the avoid-punishment/gain-reward answer or “Because God’s will is good.”  We’ve already eliminated the first part, so let’s look at the second part: “Because God’s will is good.”

Now for the statement, “God is good,” or more generally, “X is good,” to even make sense, we need some idea of what “good” means.  For example, if I say, “Fred is perfectly zugblub,” then you have no idea what I mean unless you have some idea of what “zugblub” means.  Suppose after pointing this out to me, I respond, “Fred is the very standard by which zugblub is defined; Zugblub is part of the very essence of Fred.  Indeed, Fred actually forms the necessary ground of all zugblub.  That is what zugblub means.”

This so-called definition of zugblub communicates no information.   The problem is that I have not defined zuglub independently of Fred.  All my definition amounts to is different ways of saying “Fred is Fred” and “zugblub is zugblub.”  These are true statements to be sure, but not particularly informative ones.  In other words, my definition of zugblub is tautological—an empty truth.

For example, one critic of my original article succinctly captured this phenomenon when he said, “God says it is good because it is good. How do we know that it is good? Because God’s very nature is good. God is the standard.” 1

This is a straightforward tautology:

1.  What God says is good.

2.  God is the standard by which good is defined.

By (2) “good” means that which God is, which includes all that He says, does, and wills.  By substitution (1) becomes “What God says is what God says.”

Now, it seems clear that theists don’t actually intend the statement, “God is good” to be a statement of identity.  In other words, “good” forms part, but not all, of the definition of God.  To use Kai Nielsen’s example, theists say “God is good” in the way that people would say “Puppies are young.”  You can see this by examining everyday statements such as “It is good that you gave money to that charity.”  This is certainly not equivalent to saying “ It is God that you gave money to that charity.”   Though, to the theist, it might be equivalent to saying, “It is consistent with one of God’s characteristics that you gave to that charity.”

So we can see that tautologies are not limited to statements of identity.  A statement like “Puppies are young,” or “Bachelors are unmarried,” is sometimes called an analytic statement, which means that its predicate forms part of the definition of its subject.  Such statements are tautological in that they are true by definition.  Identity statements communicate no information beyond stating a rule of logic.  Analytic statements communicate no information beyond stating a rule of language. But analytic statements can’t even do that unless we understand their predicates (e.g., “young”) independently of their subjects (e.g., “puppies”).  As Nielsen puts it,

If we had no understanding of the word “young” and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a dog was young, we could not know how correctly to apply the word “puppy.”  Without such a prior understanding of what it is to be young we could not understand the sentence, “Puppies are young.” 2

Another theist critic rather eloquently illustrated this kind of tautological reasoning as follows,

Goodness is not defined simply because God wills it, nor is goodness determined by a standard existing outside of God. Obedience should be seen as part of the essence of mankind – as we were created by the Creator, in His image, we have at our core the essence of His character. That is, as God is the definition of goodness and holiness, not only our self-awareness but also our standard for what is good, what is moral, flows from the immutable character of God. As God is the very essence of goodness – His character -nothing will be willed by Him in contradiction of His nature . . . Further, the concepts of human and divine morality, or goodness, are not independent things. Our recognition of goodness comes directly from the fact of our creation in His image. 3

Let’s break this down so the tautology is more apparent:

1.  “Goodness is not defined because God wills it.”

2.  “God is the definition of goodness and holiness.”

3.  “Nothing will be willed by Him in contradiction of His nature”

4.  “Human and divine morality, or goodness, are not independent things” since “goodness comes directly from the fact of our creation in His image.”

(2) says that God is the definition of goodness, which again converts “God is good” into either “God is God” or “Good is good,” or an analytic statement in which “good” is not understood independently of God.

(3) is the statement that God will not act in contradiction to his nature. But of course nothing acts in contradiction to its nature. This is simply stating that God will only do those things that God does. But this is no more informative than saying that fish will only do those things that fish do, which gives us no information about the nature of fish or just what it is they do.  In combination with the other statements, it is not clear what is intended by statement (1) other than that of adding a stipulation that things don’t act within their natures because they will it, but only because it is consonant with their natures, which is just a restatement of both (2) and (3).  (4) simply reasserts the theist claim, namely, that our sense of right and wrong cannot be understood outside of God’s having given it to us, which is the question at issue, and which forms one leg of the theists’ circular loop :

(1) We know something is good because it is a reflection of God’s nature within us.

(2) God’s nature is good.

(3) We know God’s nature is good because of (1)

This turns (1) into “we know something is good because we know it is good.”  And turns (3) into “We know God’s nature is a reflection of God’s nature.”

The theists’ arguments again reduce to uttering either identity statements or analytic statements—tautologies.  The theist’s other recourse is to say, “Well, when you’re dead you’ll know, but then it will be too late.”  Of course, this is just the retreat to threats of punishment and promises of reward.  Assuming the theist does not want to take the coercion approach, then to escape the preceding tautology the theist needs an independent criterion of good upon which to judge that God is, in fact, good.

Not so, according to one theist:

If we derived our judgments of good apart from God, then the theist might be making an independent judgment. But this begs the question. The theist claims that God communicates to us our sense of judgment for determining right and wrong.  Therefore the standard is not independent but dependent on the very person and ground of morality. 4

While being yet another variation of the same tautology already reviewed, this seems to add the additional claim that we gain direct knowledge of goodness in such a way that no independent judgment is or can be made.  In other words, we are simply given awareness of good by way of revealed knowledge. This knowledge comes directly from God, bypassing the usual critical faculties (similar to so many revealed truth claims of so many mutually contradictory religions and sects); therefore, no independent judgment or reasoning of any kind is necessary, or perhaps even welcome.  Now, exactly how one knows this sense comes from God is not made clear.  How does one separate “true” revelatory claims from false ones? How do we know this additional revelatory sense is even reliable?  More immediately relevant here though is how does one know this sense of good corresponds to what is actually good?  This is, after all, the point at issue.  Even if one is being fed sensations or knowledge by God, how does one know he isn’t being deceived?  In short, How does one know God is in fact good?

Well, this theist’s answer appears to be simply that God is good because God says He is, and that God is the very “ground of morality.” But “ground of morality” is just another way of saying “is the standard of good,” or the “source of goodness,”  or, once again, “God is the definition of good.”  As usual, we’re right back to “good” being defined in terms of God, without any independent idea of what “good” means; therefore, the claim, “God is good” reduces to the empty truth that “God is God,” or at most, “God has God-like properties.”  Since God is good by definition, adding that God is good because God is the ground of morality just reduces to “God is good because God is good,” or, “God is God-like, because God is God-like.”  The statement, “God is good” is already tautological; repeating that tautology within yet another tautology doesn’t shed much light on the matter.

Some theists feel that they are not making “good” and “God” self-referential in this circular argument sense, but instead, have a logically independent concept of good and take as their starting premise the claim that “God is perfectly good.”  In other words, while they believe that “good” is an independent concept, it applies to God perfectly and completely.  These theists then add that while “good” exists independently of God, we just aren’t qualified to actually test or judge whether or not God is good in any particular case—we don’t see the  “bigger picture.”  While it is logically possible for God to be evil, He never is so.  The theist claims that we do not know this by experience (since no experience would ever be accepted as counterfactual evidence of God’s goodness), but we know it as a matter of faith.

What can we say about this approach?  First, notice that we still have no idea what good means independently of God.  All we can say is that, “X is good because God ordered it, God wants it, etc.”  There is no conceivable test of God’s goodness because it is being implicitly defined as whatever God does.  In other words, whatever God does is assumed to be good a priori.  This renders the notion of “good” factually meaningless.  The theist seems to be saying that there is an independent concept of “good,” but that we have only a partial understanding of it. However this partial understanding can be completely overridden by God’s “bigger picture” perspective, such as in the Old Testament where God sends two bears to rip apart forty two children for the heinous crime of teasing an old man about being bald (2 Kings 2:23-24).  Such a “partial” conception of good is no conception at all when it can be completely overridden like this.

Second, even if an intelligible, independent notion of “good” were being offered, the question as to how one knows that it applies to God is not answered; it is simply assumed on “faith.” But this hardly clarifies matters since “faith” is simply a label for the act of a deliberate, bare-faced begging of the question.

So what does our discussion up to this point say about theists’ supposedly “objective” and “absolute” ethics?  Well, a theist-dependent ethical system rests on the following.

1.  They feel they should follow what they believe to be God’s will.

2.  They “should” (i.e., ought to) follow God’s will, because they believe God’s will is good.

3.  They believe God’s will is good, because God is the very standard by which good is defined.

(3), then, is the bedrock of any theistic-dependent ethical system, which I’ve shown to be a tautology: God’s will is good, and “good” means that which God wills (since He’s the defining standard).  To be based on a tautology is to be based on nothing at all.

Literally any ethical code you care to dream up can be based on an appropriately chosen tautology.  For example, let’s look at the application of the very same theistic logic to justify an ethical system based on telepathic space-alien communication.

“Good” is that which space aliens telepathically communicate to me, and those space alien communications are the very standard of goodness—they are what I mean when I use the word “good.”  Why do I believe these space-aliens are good?  Because they say so and because it is a matter of faith.  They even say that they are the ground of morality, which I also take as a matter of faith.  How do I know that these communications are from space-aliens and not from my own mind?  Because I have faith that it is not, and because I don’t make the mistake of trusting my imperfect human reason to judge, question, or close my heart to what they are telling me.  When my heart, or my space alien organization, tells me that space-aliens have ordered me to stone adulterers to death (as in the OT), I know that is good, even if it is evil when a human orders such deeds.  Why? Well, because the space aliens are the standard of goodness, so if they ordered it, it is good by definition; and also because the space aliens genetically engineered all life on our planet, and since they made us, they can do as they please.  After all, do clay pots question the potter who made them?  This faith-based commitment is why my ethical system is absolute.

Clearly, making a commitment to any such absolute moral system, whether based on space-aliens, one or more gods, or one’s ancestors, can be considered only an extremely arbitrary act.

The Implications and Conclusion

Now, at this point some theists forget their original assertion that non-theistic ethical systems are arbitrary and subjective, unlike their own system.  They will then begin to make statements like all “ultimate standards are based on tautology.”  Some will even go so far as to argue that reason itself is the problem here, that any ethical system is by its very nature based on an irrational commitment, i.e.,  based on “faith,” which is where faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (for Christians) comes in.  All things considered, such comments seem like a fairly generous concession to my claim that theistic-based meta-ethics is fundamentally irrational and arbitrary.  These theists, having fallen back behind a wall of irrational commitment, do achieve at least one thing they wanted: they can no longer be criticized.  But they pay an exorbitant price.  They can no longer criticize anyone else for making a different irrational commitment.  They can no longer criticize anyone else for choosing a different ethic based on faith in another God (or even the same God in any of the myriad, mutually contradictory Judeo-Christian sects), or political ideology, or even space aliens.  Each system becomes equally “justified” by these irrational appeals to faith and/or revelation, both of which are conveniently “beyond” reason.

There is another especially pernicious aspect to ethical systems that depend on God in this way.  By pushing concepts of good beyond the scope of reason and equating it with the supposed will of God—whichever of the thousands of interpretations of this Will a theist may be referring to—”good” becomes something we feel no longer qualified to judge.  Since “good” is equated with God’s nature, and since God’s nature is somehow beyond our capacity for comprehension and critical analysis, then the only way one can know he or she is doing the right thing is to simply obey.  Indeed, obedience to rules effectively becomes an end in itself, even if those rules include such things as found in the Old Testament: stoning brides to death who were found not to be virgins; sacrificing human infants; slaughtering and enslaving men, women, and children (i.e., targeting civilians) – such as in 1 Sam 15:3, “Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” (See my article on this site, The Bible: A Manual for Living?, for these and many other similar references. )

As we’ve seen, when confronted with what would normally be considered crimes against humanity, the theist will respond in various ways, none of them satisfactory:  “We are His creations, and He can do as He pleases,” or “God is good regardless of His actions, just in ways that are beyond us.”  Stripped of our own ability to know an evil deed when we see it, we now have to first ask:  “Who did it?”  One is reduced to saying, “I don’t know if it was evil until you first tell me whether or not God did it. I’ll even do the deed myself, no matter how bloody or genocidal, if you first convince me that God ordered it.”  Uncritical obedience to orders ultimately becomes the only criterion of moral behavior, even when the rule is infanticide, such as illustrated in Gen 22:2 where Abraham is told to slaughter his own son.  Indeed, Abraham’s willingness to blindly follow orders – even with the tortured, frightened screams of his own child in his ears – is held up as the supreme example of moral “goodness” we should all follow.

If it is true, as some theists claim, that “God communicates to us our sense of judgment for determining right and wrong,” then shouldn’t we naturally sense moral beauty in these O.T. atrocities, since they were sanctioned by God?  Fortunately, few do.  But even if our moral instinct is one of revulsion, we are told to remember that good is defined by God. Anything He does is good by definition, no matter what: healing sick children or having them ripped apart by wild animals.  Curiously, many Christians have often complained at this point that “things were different in the Old Testament.”  In other words, their “absolute” morals were different in the past.  Such a view ironically turns their absolutism into a rather extreme form of moral relativism.

Some theists will argue that the essential difference between the theistic and non-theistic approach is that their approach has ethics deriving from “outside” of ourselves, outside of humanity, which is the only way ethics can be considered objective.  This certainly begs the central question: theistic ethics comes from “outside us” only to the extent that God really exists and is the source of morality; otherwise, theistic ethics comes as much from “inside us” as does their sense that God talks to them.  Regardless, it is not at all clear that only things “outside us” can be objective.  After all, the fact that humans have two eyes is an objective fact even though it does not exist “outside” humans—it is an observable, testable, and therefore, objective fact about our natures, about what it means to be human. But if the theist is right, if one can be objectively moral only if those morals exist or derive from “outside” of the individual, then God, by exactly the same logic, cannot be said to be a moral being—unless, of course, the theist is saying that morals derive from outside of God. 5   This is where special pleading is typically introduced.  The theist will simply exempt themselves from their own rules:  “Your explanation must meet these conditions; however, my explanation (God) does not.”  Such flagrant tactics are, of course, unavoidable since the theist is contradicting his or her own assumptions.

Some have argued that since God is both perfect and omniscient, then His morals are perfect and therefore truly objective in a way that would not be possible for imperfect humans.  In addition to confusing the notions of “objective” with “perfection,” this approach quickly becomes incoherent, and again begs a central question. First, the notion of omniscience undermines the idea that God has free will:  If He knows all of His future actions and decisions, then He is not free to change them; if he doesn’t yet know his future actions, then he is not omniscient.  Second, the existence of natural evil (disease, earthquakes, etc.) contradicts any meaningful notion of God’s goodness in light of his supposed omnipotence.  Either he can prevent infants from dying slowly of parasitic microorganisms (creatures He presumably designed for just this purpose) and refuses to, in which case He is not good; or He can’t prevent it, in which case He is not all-powerful.  Third, whether or not we always do accurately discover what is morally right for us does not, in and of itself, alter the fact that there is something objectively right for us.  For example, if we erroneously concluded that certain foods were good for us that were actually poisonous, then we  would die.  In other words, our capacity for error does not alter the fact that there are objectively poisonous things for us to eat, as well as healthy things for us to eat.  Finally, of course, this again begs a central question, namely that of God’s existence as a perfect and good being.

One thing we haven’t addressed up to this point is the implicit theist assumption that if we accepted their meta-ethical theory, then we would suddenly know what the moral “rules” are—presumably through faith or revelation.  This is certainly an amazing assumption when one considers that the number of Christian sects is well into thousands, let alone the fact that the whole of this internally bickering Christendom represents only a minority of the world’s religions.  As the basis for an “absolute” ethical system it leaves much unexplained about how to tell the “right” interpretation of God’s Will from the many, many “wrong” ones.  Presumably choosing the “right” interpretation is as much an application of irrational commitment (i.e., faith) as choosing to believe in the particular deity(ies) in the first place.  Such an approach leaves us with precisely what we would expect:  an anarchy of “absolute” moral systems and religious codes, each of which proclaims itself “objective and absolute” and “above” mere human reason (and therefore immune to rational debate and investigation).  So when a member of any of these countless belief systems points to the non-theist and proclaims “you have an arbitrary and unjustified moral code” I can’t help but think of the biblical story to the effect that only he who is without sin should cast the first stone.

We’ve shown the fatal flaws in any God-based meta-ethical theory, but where does that leave us? Is there no basis for ethics at all, or are we forced to accept some relativistic one?  I explore what I believe is an objective, naturalistic meta-ethical theory in the article, Darwinian Meta Ethics.

1 Critic from <>, forwarded to me via personal correspondence by Dawson Bethrick.

2 Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990), p.59.

3 Bill Hale, personal correspondence.

4 Critic from vantil-applied.

5 Dawson Bethrick shared this observation with me in a personal correspondence.