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Morality: What Part Do Gods Play?

Grant Petersen

A number of theists have asked me if objective morality can exist without a god. At first, I was somewhat puzzled by this question until I realised that it contained a few hidden assumptions. One of these is that the existence of a god would necessarily lead to the existence of objective morality.

Many atheists respond to this question with long and convoluted explanations of how objective morality can still exist, even without the existence of a god. In doing so they unwittingly fall into a very clever trap devised to dodge the real issue at stake. Objective morality may or may not exist but its connection with a deity is based solely on a theistic paradigm. I will try to illustrate this with a few problems that god as a source of morality might create:

Problem of subjectivity: Who is to say that god's perception of right and wrong is superior to anyone else's? With no guarantee that objective morality even exists (philosophers are still arguing about that one) could one be sure that god's opinion is not any less subjective than yours or mine?

Problem of displaced subjectivity: The god theory does not effectively refute any of the arguments against objective morality, it simply passes the buck. Humans disagree on moral questions, so why not invoke gods? What if the gods disagree among themselves, would they, in turn, appeal to super-gods? And what about the super-gods? It seems a bit like an infinite pile of turtles.

Problem of circular reasoning: Define god as the only possible source of objective morality. Then assume that objective morality exists. Use this as "proof" that god exists.

Problem of interpretation: Assume for a moment that god's morals are, in fact, superior to human morals: how is one to determine what those morals or values consist of? Some ancient writings and the somewhat dubious interpretations of priests, etc., are all that we have to go on. Even if god knows what is morally right or wrong, the fact that we do not know what he knows makes the point moot.

Problem of numerous gods: Through the ages there have been many different religions with many different gods, all of which seemed to have somewhat differing opinions about morality, ranging from human sacrifice to cannibalism. Which one was right? Sounds pretty subjective to me.

I hope I have managed to, at the very least, cast sufficient doubt on the god-based explanation of morality to convince the reader that it in no way removes any of the subjective problems with objective morality, and in fact creates some new ones of its own. Only time will tell if a truly cohesive theory of objective morality will be formulated, but if it is it will not be based on imaginary beings created to fill the gaps in our knowledge.




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Published:
  2003-08-11

Categories:
  Objectivism

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