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Can You Have Morality Without God?

Updated on April 23, 2015

What is the basis of morality?

A typical argument made by believers in some sort of a God is that true morality cannot exist unless a morally perfect God exists. Without this ethical God to provide a universal moral standard, morality is arbitrary, with no individual person able to claim that his or her moral standards are superior to anyone else. And in a world filled with various forms of injustice, a world in which the evil sometimes win and the righteous lose, the only way for people to ever receive justice is for this ethical God to hand out rewards and punishments in some sort of an afterlife.

On the surface, this seems to be a powerful argument, but it has a few fundamental flaws. If morality can only exist if a God lays down the basic moral principles, then morality is still arbitrary, with God handing out laws like some sort of a divine cosmic dictator. Murder and stealing are not inherently wrong. They have only been declared wrong by a God who could have, for all we know, created a planet, galaxy, or universe in which he told his subjects that these behaviors are perfectly okay. Maybe God is carrying out a continuous cosmic experiment, trying to see how different moral codes and criteria for judgment day play out in these various realities.

If there is a morally perfect God, it is more logical to believe that this God has chosen to align himself with what is inherently right. In other words, God does what is right because it is right. Something does not become right because God has arbitrarily decided that it is. Assuming that this is true, then a God is not necessary for the existence of morality. Good behavior is good behavior whether God exists or not.

Still, one could argue that we humans need this morally perfect God to provide direct guidance. Given the variety of opinions that we humans might have when faced with the same circumstances, we must be able to turn to some sort of a universal, consistent standard. This is why God has spoken to us through his prophets and by inspiring some of these followers to write down Holy Scriptures. Instead of relying on our own flawed judgment, we can turn to God for answers.

The problem with these Holy Scriptures, however, is that they are short on specifics. They tend to illustrate how people should live through stories, and when making direct statements about morality, they merely lay out general principles. It is impossible, after all, to give specific advice about every moral dilemma that could ever come up. This is why followers of the same holy book will often have conflicting opinions regarding the proper interpretation of these scriptures and/or of how they apply to a given situation. Inevitably, people are forced to rely on their own consciences and basic common sense. Appealing to a higher power does not eliminate the need to think. Even the decision to believe in a specific God, after all, has to be made by the individual believer.

Fortunately, morality is pretty easy to figure out most of the time. As a general rule, it is more difficult to do what is right than to determine what is right. To determine how to treat someone else, all that you have to do is put yourself into his or her place and ask yourself how you would like to be treated. Simple empathy and common sense are sufficient in almost all day-to-day circumstances. And when morally complex situations come up, a holy book is unlikely to provide very much guidance anyway. Words, whether verbal or written, are inherently flawed, imprecise instruments. Sometimes, all we have is that nebulous entity that we call a conscience, and if our heart is in the right place, then we probably won’t do too much harm.

Still, one could ask why we should even bother being moral in a godless universe. Moral, selfless behavior will often prevent a person from being successful in a world as brutal as this one. In addition, an overactive conscience can be an impediment to having any fun. So if this life is a one-way trip, and the selfless will often get trampled on by the selfish, then it makes sense to look out for number one. The only reason to not engage in blatantly immoral behavior is to avoid ending up in jail.

But if a morally perfect God exists, and this God punishes people in an afterlife, then even those who get away with immoral behavior in this life will get their just rewards. Without a God, however, the many wrongs in this world will never be made right. There is no doubt that one of the hardest things about being a human being is living in a world filled with so much injustice. Children get cancer, civilian bystanders die in wars, and people born into poverty face a much more difficult struggle than those born into wealth. The religious, however, can at least take comfort in the notion that God will one day make things right.

Truly moral behavior, however, is not carried out in the hopes of receiving a reward or avoiding punishment. People committed to fighting injustice will fight even if there is little hope of success. If we truly believe that a behavior is good, then we should do it simply because it is good. Doing things simply to gain rewards or avoid punishments is selfishness wrapped in a superficial morality. (Although given our somewhat selfish natures, a belief in an impending judgment day can be an effective tool for keeping people in line.)

As a human being born with the capacity to put myself into the place of other humans, I do not need to read a philosophy book or study anyone’s Holy Scriptures to separate right from wrong. Since all of us have faced circumstances in which we have been treated differently than we would like, anyone with a basic sense of decency will have no desire to inflict this treatment on others. So you can spare me any philosophic arguments in which you assert your right to behave like an asshole. Arguing that you have the right to strip other people of their rights is as logical as arguing that one plus one equals three. And since no sane person wants to be harmed, those who have demonstrated the capacity to do major harm must, in the name of both justice and public safety, be separated from society.

We cannot count on God to inflict punishments or to keep the public safe. If God exists, he has demonstrated over the millennia that he either lacks the capacity or the willingness to protect people from suffering or to carry out justice in this world. And if he doesn’t exist, justice will not be coming in any afterlife. So if any people in this world should have a passion for morality and justice, it is the atheists. Because in the atheist worldview, this life is the only opportunity to try to get justice for ourselves and for others.


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    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 2 years ago

      I don't see the Golden Rule as selfish. Putting yourself in someone's place is just a simple way of trying to determine how to behave in a moral fashion. If we have no holy book to tell us what to do in a given situation, then empathy is the main thing that we have to fall back on.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 2 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      @Paul: "If we truly believe that a behavior is good, then we should do it simply because it is good. Doing things simply to gain rewards or avoid punishments is selfishness wrapped in a superficial morality"

      This is called the Catagorical Moral Imperative that Kant spoke of. Do what's right for it's own sake, not for what you may gain from it. The motive is what matters. Duty. Do the right thing for the right reasons.

      A young boy walks into a store to buy some bread. His parents gave him the money but he's very young and doesn't know about making change. The store owner seeing the boy is very young realizes he could short change the boy and he'd never know it. But he reasons that if he did, word could get out that he cheated the young boy and he'd lose customer in the process. So...he gives the boy the right change. Was there any moral worth to his actions?? The answer is no. He did the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. The right and moral thing to do is to give the boy the right change because it's right for it's own sake.

      You don't need a God to figure that out. You just need to act out of duty.

      You mentioned this earlier; "To determine how to treat someone else, all that you have to do is put yourself into his or her place and ask yourself how you would like to be treated. The Golden Rule. I was taught that when I was VERY young and told if I remembered that, everything would take care of itself. Over the years I've come to re-examine the Golden Rule, and there's something I find flawed in it. I don't believe that a selfish motive is a moral motive. The Golden Rule says to treat others as I want to be treated. That IS a selfish motive. It means that I'm going to treat others well, because I want to be treated well. The motive here is wrong. It's about self-interest. Again, it brings me back to motive. If the motive is self-less then the act is good in itself and not linked to what I want for myself. I rise above my own petty interests and do the right thing for the right reasons. Again, it's about duty. The motive should be to do the right thing for it's own sake. Not for what I may gain from it. Again...I didn't need a God to figure that out. And I'm not doing it because I hope that I may get a reward down the line. The Christian that does the right thing because he wants to go to heaven is just being hypocritical. His motive is totally wrong. I'm not so sure that his God rewards hypocrisy. If he does...then what kind of god is that?

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 2 years ago

      I know. I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Some members believe in some sort of a god. Some don't. We just agree that people should be good for the sake of being good.

      But in this essay, as the title indicates, I was focusing on atheists.

    • Dizze Blogger profile image

      Nalani Sanderson 2 years ago from Oregon

      There are religions and spiritualities that believe it is best to live this life to its best potential, not because of any distant future outcome for yourself but because it does the most good (for yourself and others) right now or for future generations in the future. Some of these believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, some do not believe in either. Atheists are not the only ones.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 2 years ago

      You are questioning if the Judeo-Christian God is moral. And given this God's actions in the Bible, it's a valid question. But there are plenty of other alternatives.

      The larger question for me is why the creator(s) would create a world with so much potential suffering. Even if you conceive of a God that is much nicer and more reasonable than the Biblical version, you still have to deal with that suffering issue.

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 2 years ago from Plymouth

      Is God moral? Can you have morality with a God who's scripture teaches to put to death those who disagree with him (heretics), those who don't adhere to his commandments (sinners), those who worship other gods, practice witchcraft and a host of other things he condemns while threatening eternal punishment and damnation for even relatively minor 'sins'?