Response to: God is the Source of Morality

Lucifer Liège (Belgium)
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The claim that God is the Source of all Morality comes into play in a number of ways.

As an attack on an atheist, "Atheists cannot be moral since God is the Source of Morality?"  (Or a more sophisticated attack: atheists cannot rationally defend being moral since God is the source of morality).

As a defense of God (responding to the problem of evil, for example), "Who are you to criticize God's actions as immoral? He is the source of Morality!"

To the atheist reading this essay: when confronted with the claim that "God is the Source of Morality," I know that there are a lot of very meaty options. You could bring up the ancient philosophical dialogue of Euthyphro, for example. Another route is to dispute whether God exists, or whether His words and thoughts are knowable, or whether creative power over the universe leads to moral power.

A tempting, and often contentious even amongst fellow atheists, you could dispute whether there is an objective "Good" and "Evil," but, then you're missing an opportunity. You can defeat the "God is the Source of Morality" argument giving the theist you are talking to almost as many assumptions as they wish. I plan on writing up several more responses to this question in the future.

The fundamental question that the atheist should ask when presented with this assertion as an attack or a defense, in my opinion, is:

"Can humans discover on their own what is right and wrong?"

Taking, of course, "on their own" to mean that right and wrong are discoverable in a reliable way without some god telling us.

If the theist answers yes, then we don't need God to tell us what is right and wrong. This includes, by the way, the theists who say we have an innate moral sense that was given to us by God.

If the theist answers no, then ask "how would we ever discover the moral difference between God and Satan? More importantly, assuming we could discover the moral difference, how could we figure out which one is good and which is evil?"

Once the theist has committed to the answer that humans cannot discover what is right and wrong through reason, rationality, an innate sense, etc., the very sticky epistemological question about how to gain that knowledge comes into play.

How did the theist come to discover that God was good? That Satan is evil?

If a theist asked Yahweh and Lucifer who was good and who was evil, would they each give you the same answer? Or opposite answers?

If they gave you opposite answers, how did you know that Yahweh was good and Lucifer was bad and not vice versa?

Was there some standard that you could compare the actions of each to? If you say, "yes, the standard that Yahweh wrote down"; well, why not what Lucifer wrote down?

The person has to come up with a valid way of figuring out what is good and what is evil, or he has to randomly decide to pick Lucifer to follow and Yahweh to reject, or vice versa. If the person admits to randomly choosing one to follow, then he does not have a rational basis for morality, and can no longer meaningfully argue that atheists cannot rationally defend being moral.

To get a theist to admit that he would praise even the most evil deeds that Satan could do if it turned out that it was actually God that did them is a terrible thing. There is no shred of morality when the only factor in determining whether an action is good or not is the name of the actor. That would be the most arbitrary moral relativism possible.

Two Bonus Bits:

The following statements are usually fairly troublesome to theists.

  • If we require God to know what is immoral and what is moral actions, then God cannot say we have a moral failing if we don't worship Him.
  • If this life is a moral test, then God cannot punish us for failing it if we have to randomly choose the right morals. It only makes sense to punish a person if he ought to have known he was acting improperly.

Frequent Challenges (I will update this as I get feedback):

But since God created everything, He decides what is right and what is wrong.

And you know this because God told you that He was the one who did it -- not because you had direct experience of this, of course. If Satan claimed that he himself had created the universe, and that God was his creation -- how could we decide who was telling the truth?

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