Friday, February 8, 2013

The Problems of Religious Morality

One of the major objections religious people have towards atheism is the belief that morality requires a higher power. That is, without a god to declare what is right and wrong, there could be no basis for morality. A practical refutation of this would be the millions of atheists who aren't going around murdering people every day, but sticking with the religious basis of morality, there are some serious issues with the idea of morality coming from a higher power that I think are very interesting.

Now, let me be clear up front that I'm not attempting any kind of argument of the form "their ideas have more problems than my ideas, therefore I'm right and they're wrong". Understanding reality is not a popularity contest. Religious people seem to think that belief in morals from a higher power is a solid and robust idea, and once you make that leap of belief your moral philosophy is now on stable ground. And this fact in itself is often used as an argument as to why that leap should be made; i.e. that morality without a higher power is baseless and inconsistent, but once you inject a higher power into the mix you solve all of those problems. What I hope to demonstrate is that making the leap of faith doesn't afford moral theory with the desired robustness, and so it can't be used as an argument in its favour. That pretty much leaves it with just the "because I want it to be true" argument, which is how I think it should be.

All cultures have moral systems

The key fact to recognize is that all known human cultures have moral systems of some sort. They all have differences, and an act can be considered moral in one culture and highly immoral in another, but no human culture is amoral. Now, it's worth pointing out that these differences are not totally relative and arbitrary, so that any act will be moral in some society. There is generally a system that is relatively consistent and makes sense when the particulars of the culture are understood. For example, infanticide is considered moral in some traditional cultures (though is much less common today as these cultures have more contact and interaction with outside cultures). However, you can't just go around killing any child in these cultures. It's a very specific case when mothers give birth to a child while the previous one is still too young, or if they give birth to twins. In these cases, it is done as a practical matter because the mother will not be able to support both (see The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond).

We have to ask the question of how all of these cultures got their moral systems, if morality comes from a higher power. Here are the options I can see:

God spoke to all of them

If we require a higher power to know what is right and wrong, then it must be the case that all human cultures have been spoken to by a higher power in order to know this. This would require that god chose to appear in a different form to every culture, and to give each of them a different moral system. If this were true, then there is no such thing as a single objective morality, unless you claim that he told the truth once and lied every other time.

Or you could possibly argue that he gave all cultures the same moral system, but those systems became corrupted over time. If this were the case, then how would you tell what the correct, original system was?

God spoke to one/some of them

If god only spoke to one group (or possibly a small number of groups), you may be able to get around the problem of god giving different moral systems to different groups of people. But this creates a much bigger problem, which is that all of those other groups must have developed their moral systems without a higher power. And this, of course, is the very thing that religious people are saying cannot be done. Unless they want to argue that everyone else is just fooling themselves and have baseless moral systems. This would mean that all other religions with their own moral systems are a massive lie, with only one group having moral truth based on an actual higher power. Many religious people seem to believe precisely this (though they are reluctant to state it explicitly given the massive hubris of such a belief), creating the problem of people from different religions all thinking that they are right and the others are wrong, but without having any good reason why that should be so, leaving the much more likely theory that they are all wrong.

God speaks to everyone in some ill defined way

Another option would be to say that god hasn't spoken to everyone in a direct "Moses on the mountain" kind of way, but rather in some more subtle way, such as somehow encoding morality into our souls, or something along those lines. I'm not sure if any religious people actually try to argue such a thing, but it seems the most obvious alternative for avoiding the problems of the previous two options.

If such a thing were the case, then it would open the question of what need there is for religion to explain morals? If they are already part of us in some way, we don't need to be taught or told them from an external source. You wouldn't need to practice or believe in any particular religion since you already 'know' the important parts. It would also raise the question of how you could prove such a thing. There would be no practical difference between morality being innate for evolutionary reasons and being innate in a soul, since souls are supernatural concepts not detectable by any scientific method.


So, let me reiterate that if morals come from a higher power, given that different cultures have different moral systems, it must be the case that either zero or one of those cultures actually practices a moral system from a higher power, or that god intentionally gives different moral systems to different cultures. In any of these cases, it is unclear how you can determine which is the 'true' moral system, making the 'higher power' explanation have little practical value.

Deriving new morals

If it is necessary to have a higher power to give us rules for right and wrong, then this implies that our moral system is to some degree arbitrary. That is, god could just as easily have chosen to make any rule different. If this were not true, e.g. if god could not have chosen to make stealing or murder moral, then there is something outside of god that defines morality, which would mean that a higher power is not necessary.

At a bare minimum, a moral system would need to have a basic set of axioms, all arbitrarily chosen by god, from which all other morals could be deduced. Do any religious moral systems actually have such a thing? I would bet that some may claim to have it, but I've never seen such a thing. There always seem to be moral questions that require some degree of judgement, usually provided by the wise elders of the given tradition. But, just like a scientific theory, unless they can show their working, the clear set of indisputable steps that led them to their moral conclusion, they are not working with a consistent system that is reducible to arbitrary, god-chosen axioms.

So, the question is, how does a god-based moral system deduce new morals? How do you determine the morality of a choice that was never covered explicitly by the moral code that the higher power gave? If god could choose any arbitrary answer for any moral question, then you can't know what he would have chosen in this new situation. And if a moral system is consistent and axiomatic, then how much choice did god actually have in creating it, and is he then actually necessary to explain it? Or, if a moral system is not consistent, then how can you justify making new moral deductions?

Final thoughts

I hope that this post has given you some interesting food for thought, as these questions certainly have for me. Of course, I freely admit that I don't think a higher power is necessary to explain human morals, but by working through the implications of such a belief, it is possible to see that it is also not sufficient to explain the problem either, which is an important warning flag not to be dismissed lightly.

I look forward to feedback from others on this topic, since I know it's quite probably that I've made mistakes in my reasoning here, and maybe overlooked other options.


  1. A well-thought-out take on religion and morality. Here's another take on the issue from a Christian philosopher I respect very much:

    Starting from the same premiss viz. can people be good without *belief in God* and answering the same way you did, he then goes onto the more abstract: can people be good without God?

    If you need a TL;DR, here's a slightly shorter Q & A version of the moral argument for the existence of God:

  2. Thanks for the links, Glen. I'm familiar with William Lane Craig, but I must confess to not having a great deal of respect for him. He's definitely an intelligent person, but I find his conduct during the debates I've seen him in to be intellectually dishonest. He's very good at controlling a debate and keeping his opponents on the defensive, but he rarely actually deals with issues raised by his opponents in any serious way, just always falling back to repeating the same fallacies.

    Regarding the discussion in the links themselves, he mostly makes some good points and I do actually agree with some of them, but I think his core logical argument has faulty premises, and thus the conclusion is unwarranted.

    His argument goes (in his words):
    1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
    2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

    I'm not convinced that 1 or 2 are true. He makes some reasonable (but not conclusive) arguments for 1, but I think he falls woefully short of justifying 2.

    In the end, I think the thing that concerns me most with Craig is that I've heard him make plenty of arguments about why there must be a god rather than not, but I've not heard anything from him justifying why that god must be the Christian god. It always raises warning flags for me when any religious person takes generic god arguments and then tries to use them to justify belief in a specific version of god, particularly when they're claiming that their beliefs are logically founded. I'm yet to see an argument by any religious person as to how every other religion ever practised is false and invented, but how their particular choice amongst those thousands of options is the one true one, and their practice of that religion is not at all biased by the time and place they were born and culture they grew up in.

  3. I should add that this part spoken by Sam Harris in a debate against William Lane Craig is very much how I also feel, and I don't think Craig (or any other religious person) has any good answers to the challenges Harris presents:

  4. We're dealing here with a bigger problem that goes beyond religion - the legitimation of ethics. Even purely secular philosophical/ethical doctrines deal with similar problems as those you describe for religion: such as cultural determination etc. You can actually try to read much of the article with only little adjustments as the criticism of ethics theories in general.

    Firstly, it appears that anything that is to be considered ethics or morality has to be universally binding and not just a personal choice. If you choose to not murder people whereas I would go around killing them, you would not be tolerant of my choice as a purely personal one. Understandably, this is because my decision to kill people would gravely impact well-being of other people, possibly including you. That's why everyone at some point feels they should stand for something or stand against something. The very word "justice" means something that is binding for all - any justice that would only apply to a group of people, say the poor, appears to us being the opposite of justice - injustice. I would not be very just to tell you that you can't murder whereas I can.

    The case of murder is rather extreme though. On the other end of the spectrum, there are mostly or even purely personal choices. If I decide to meditate every morning for example, I should not expect you to do the same.

    One of the big practical problems of ethics is that there is a full spectrum gradient between those two extremes and a lot of arguments and disagreements seem to be born from the failure to correctly distinguish between the universally binding principles and the matters of personal choice that depend not only on taste, but also on cultural and personal perspectives/determinations.

    The religious argument goes roughly like this: if we "experience" morality as something (ideally) universally binding, there has got to be a higher level source for such a claim - no single human could claim they know what's good for all the rest, because that would be illegitimate. The higher level is either an explicit God, or some terminological substitutes, such as "humanism" or some other "ideal", but in principle, these substitutes always seem to point over and above a person - to some kind of transcendence.

    Of course, this is a problematic claim and it certainly eludes an empirical test in the scientific sense. But if we take transcendence out of the equation, we still run into major problems. If you, say, define "good" as "utility" or usefulness, you'll end up with endless arguments what "common good", "well-being" or "utility" actually mean in practice. For example, in regards to the wealth distribution within society: is the greatest sum of all wealth the "good"? Then we end up justifying a single person owning everything and millions dying of starvation (kind of like Peter the Great's Russia). Is the "good" in equal distribution of wealth? Then we get the communist kind of nightmare. Is the "good" in providing all people with food, heat and shelter? You can do that only if you dispense with freedom (which, again, communists demonstrated).

  5. Which is definitely not to say that these things should not be discussed and thought about. It only means that you can't expect that if you take God as the legitimation source out of the equation, everything will click instantly. It won't.

    In short, the religious argument makes some sense insofar it tries to address the legitimation problem by assuming that the only legitimate, therefore objectively binding source of morality has to be something less flawed than a human being. Its obvious weakness is that even if such thing exists, it can apparently only manifest itself through those flawed human beings, and in addition to that, some of the most flawed of those human beings regularly try to sell their own bullshit as the word of God.

    Personally, I observe there are basically two kinds of people, regardless of their religion or lack of it. The first kind generally understands that you have to (=it is good) make room for other people, perhaps restrict your desires to a degree to harmonize with the others. The other kind wants and tries to "harmonize" the others with their desires. These two basic attitudes (and transient mixtures of course) exist in all cultures, communities, religions, peoples. Philosophically, you might say that the first group is motivated by an implicit or explicit belief in the good that transcends their own personal good, whereas the others define good solely as their personal good or gain, if you will.

    As usual, I'll drag in some literary examples. The above train of thought is of course nothing new, I believe it has been thoroughly explored by the Enlightenment. There was a wave of atheism that embraced the "there is no transcendence" ethics, exemplified famously by Marquis de Sade and his books. I've only read Justine and I have to say it is very interesting and rather pertinent to the issue here. It is basically violent porn though rather literate and laced with philosophical speeches which are truly baffling. De Sade's rapists usually meticulously explain to their victims those implications of atheism that today's atheists tend to avoid, and then rape and rape. His arguments are often very difficult to dismiss rationally, but they seem to be utterly repulsive for the purpose they serve - is it because we really are the scared conformists afraid to embrace life as it really is? Or because the moral sentiment is more than just sentimentality? It's up to the readers to judge.

    Later, Dostoyevsky modeled the dilemma in Crime and Punishment. Unlike de Sade's characters, Raskolnikov does not give up on universal morality, in fact just the opposite - he is an atheist-idealist. He wants to make the world a better place but he lacks the means, so he decides to murder a rich but morally corrupt person to get hold of her money and then spend them as a philanthropist. In our context, we can say he refused the above-personal, transcendent and universally binding element of morality and assumed for himself the role of a God: not anymore the one who has to accept what is right and wrong, but the one who determines so (= a god). The book portrays with fierce intensity the ensuing throes of guilt that seem to prove that our morality is not an entirely personal and arbitrary choice. It has little to no "technical" philosophy in it, but it is conceived as a thought experiment, offering the story as a basis for reflection on the issue where the reader needs to do most of the thinking.

  6. Dostoyevsky's work was extremely influential for both atheists and believers in the 20th century, because his literary portrayals of "pride of man" becoming a god seemed almost like prophecies in the world of Hitler and Stalin, both of them pretty fond of defining what morality was (after all, Raskolnikov's hero was another "great man" - Napoleon). The secular dictators were countered not so much by religious people but by the aformentioned humanists whom I consider, for better or worse, basically heirs of Christianity.

    I. Kant used a nice metaphor for the "wellspring" of good - a vanishing point. We'll never "see" it, neither it has proper "physical existence", but our deeds are good only when they point towards this vanishing point. Any ethical system, religious or not, should be only concerned with those basic principles, those vanishing points, not so much get entangled with cookbook recipes. Our personal situations have so many variables that trying to follow rules thoughtlessly would be just as counterproductive as in any other human activity. Even religion evolved in this direction. The law of Moses is explicitly dealing with a pile of details, whereas Jesus only instructed his followers to love God and fellow men, while St. Augustine famously stated "love, and do what you want".

    So to sum up, you can try to legtimize the transcendent morality by something else than God, but I think you'll run into problems nevertheless. As far as I am concerned, it is good, whatever the philosophical stance may be, to try to define and promote good beyond personal profit. At times, cultural religion has done a very good job of this, at other times, it directly and woefully countered this ideal, but I'd be careful with blanket accusations. At any rate, if God is really dead, we should not try to claim the empty throne so to speak, and always remember that none of us is in the position to assume infallibility and god-like authority in defining morals for the rest.

  7. These are excellent posts, Petr, and I really enjoyed reading them. Further reading I've done also tends to suggest that religious people tend to think that non-religious people are capable of moral behaviour, but they don't have any underlying basis on which their moral theory can rest, like you've said. I think this is generally known as Divine Command theory, and the suggestion is that you must have some higher power in order to have objective morality.

    I tend to kind of agree that objective morality is problematic without falling back to a higher power, but I'm not convinced that in practice Divine Command theory actually works like it is claimed.

    The first thing is, as I mentioned in my post above, imagine you have one religion that has the real truth, and thus their moral system is actually backed by Divine Command. All of the other religions think that they have this same backing, but in reality they don't because their understanding of god is incorrect. But as long as the moral behaviour is the same, is there really any difference between the correct religion and all the others? As long as you believe that your moral system is grounded in god, you will believe that it is objective, and thus you will accept the moral rules without question! We don't need actual object morality, we just need to think we've got it. And maybe this is one reason why religion springs up in every human culture. It provides legitimation for the rules that run the society.

    The second thing is, again as I mentioned in my post, how do you come up with answers to new moral problems? If morality comes from Divine Command, the fact that different groups have different moral systems means that we clearly get our morals, at least to some degree, from external sources. How does a Catholic decide that contraception or euthanasia is wrong? It's obviously not an inbuilt moral belief. Rather, it comes from holy texts written by men, and interpreted by men. So the claim is false that a morality backed by Divine Command is somehow more legitimate than men assuming the god-like authority to define morals for the rest, as you put it. Men already do it. The pope does it for a billion people, and what's more, they're supposed to believe that he is infallible in matters of doctrine. So I think this is in fact much worse, because you have men inventing morals, but claiming divine authority so that they can't be challenged. At least when an atheist comes up with a moral theory, he knows that he might be wrong, so may at least be willing to be swayed by evidence and reason to change his mind.

    Why do we have the situation today where the Catholic church still has to insist that contraception is wrong? Because its morality is backed by Divine Command theory, and the pope is claimed to be infallible, so to change their stance on a doctrinal issue would be to admit that a previous pope was wrong, or it calls in to question the whole concept of Divine Command, that these things are moral because god says they are. It's incredibly dangerous and the cause of a lot of suffering in the world.