Atheist Michael Nugent has written a short article for the Irish Times titled “Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality.” In this work, he attempts to show that morality is determined by personal and/or group choice instead of by God.
His belief isn’t surprising. How could someone who does not believe in God come to any other conclusion? If there is no God, there’s no opportunity for him to be the source of morality. There must be some other criteria people and societies can use establish the laws of morality.
Let us first be clear about the Christian position. Mr. Nugent rightly understands that most religious people believe god is the originator of morality. In Christianity, there is nothing above God (“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord” God Revelations 1:8.). Morality isn’t some arbitrary force or set of constraints that God must follow. Moral laws exist because God makes them exist.
A perfect example of this is incest. Since the laws prohibiting incest aren’t specified until the book of Leviticus, we can only assume incest was permissible at some point prior to when the laws were created. Incest didn’t become immoral until God made it immoral.
Having established the Christian position, let’s take a closer look at Mr Nugent’s thoughts. Right off the bat he makes a curious statement:
“Most atheists believe that we have to work it [morality] out ourselves.”
To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Nugent really believes this statement. If he really believes morality is a matter of personal opinion, then why does he criticize the Christian approach to morality? Shouldn’t he be completely fine with Christians using their Bibles to guide their morality if that’s the way they choose to “work it out?” Ultimately, he wants the same thing we all want and that is to see his own system of morality adopted as universally as possible.
He goes on to state some problems that seem to rule out the possibility of a God created morality:
- Different religions have different gods with different moral rules. Even worse, their followers differ on the interpretation of the rules.
- What is the criteria by which a god uses to establish his moral laws? If there is a higher set of constraints a god must follow, then morality is independent of gods. If a god chooses what the laws are, then he could have easily chosen any of the options, so morality is arbitrary.
Having successfully shown that God cannot be the source of morality, he gives an alternative method (adopted by “many atheists”) for determining whether or not an action is moral. One simply needs to ask the question, “what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings?” Any action that increases suffering or decreases well-being is immoral.
If only it were so simple. Is every action discreetly immoral or moral? Pick any war that’s ever been fought. For one side, well-being was likely decreased, for the other, well-being likely increased. Was America acting immorally when it defeated the Germans in WWII? What about justice? When criminals are punished, their suffering is likely increased while their well-being is decreased. Is it immoral to punish criminals who have clearly committed a crime?
Under inspection, his criteria for establishing morality is useless. Many decisions help someone, while hurting someone else. Many actions hurt people in the short term while helping them in the long run (thinking of some constructive discipline I received as a child) and many actions hurt an individual while helping a group. Morality exists independent of someone’s well-being or suffering. Do we really consider someone who lies, cheats and steals in the name of easing their suffering or increasing their well-being to be acting morally? Of course not.
It is God who is the source of morality. The two issues Mr. Nugent had with this fact are easily dismissed:
- First, truth is truth. The fact that multiple beliefs have multiple interpreters does not detract from the truth that God is sovereign. Imperfect people make imperfect interpretations, but the right answer still remains right. (6+1 = 7 no matter how many Kindergarteners give the wrong answer.) Also, we are all created with unique perspectives and Christianity (on some subjects) gives us the freedom to choose our own way without drawing condemnation from God.
- Second, morality is not independent or arbitrary. Mr Nugent would like us to believe that God just woke up one morning and decided to outlaw murder because he was in a good mood that particular day. This of course is nonsense. The Bible is quiet clear that God does what is best for us (Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them”). The moral laws we have been given were chosen for a purpose.
In closing, Mr. Nugent’s position on morality isn’t completely clear (apart from the fact that he doesn’t think it comes from God). On one hand, he would have us believe there is some natural foundation for the laws of morality that we all internally understand – namely, humans inherently know it’s immoral to harm other people. On the other hand, he has stated the rules of morality are something Atheists believe need to be worked out by people. Neither one of those ideas appear to stand up against scrutiny. For the first argument, it’s already been shown that causing or not causing harm to people is a poor way to determine the morality of an action. It just doesn’t fit with the way societies work as just about anyone would agree liberating Kuwait in the first Gulf War was moral and justifiable despite the harm done to the Iraqi army. Mr. Nugent would need to identify a better morality test in order for us to take this theory seriously. Second, if moral laws need to be worked out then the implication is morality is defined by each person. Moral laws for a society are worked out by negotiation or imposed by people with power. Unfortunately, this too is a losing position since Atheists would not longer be able to pass judgements on acts of rape, pedophilia, murder etc… It’s a tough intellectual spot to be in for an Atheist and most will likely continue to endorse a flawed natural foundation argument instead of assessing the facts and making a correct interpretation.