Morality Posts – Theism solves all the problems

…or does it?  I am willing to admit that morality is a very tough topic to think about.  But what I don’t see is that if I became a theist that the toughness of the topic goes away.  Even if I returned to theism I’d still be left with questions that I would have:

  1. How did god come up with morals? (relates to Euthyphro)
  2. What is it that grounds the moral authority of god over us?
  3. How do we know that the god we have chosen to believe in is actually a god who represents true goodness and not an evil god who has tricked us into believing that he represents true goodness?
  4. How do we know that our conclusions about what our god deems as moral are the correct conclusions or interpretations?  Couldn’t we be mistaken?
  5. What if it actually turns out that more gods exist than we thought and the other gods have conflicting morals – which morals would end up winning over as the objective ones which are meant to be followed?

That last one is an interesting one, and a related bit of info is the realization that all of the famous purported proofs for the existence of one god could be re-written to try and prove the existence of more than one god… try it out and see what you think.

My point is not that theists are in a tougher position regarding morality, but that we are all really on equal ground here.

There is definitely a positive side to the idea of having a god who represents true goodness (assuming we humans could get our act together and agree on all the things that are truly good)… it would be very nice to have someone watching over all of us and protecting those who want to be good, and keeping those who want to practice evil in check.  But obviously just because there are benefits to such a concept does not prove that it represents reality.  In fact, the reality of our world seems to indicate otherwise.

If you would like to think more about the comparisons between theistic and atheistic moralities and if you’d like to think even more outside of the box with some unique ideas I’d highly recommend this article.  I’d also highly recommend this debate for more very interesting thoughts on the good versus evil god hypotheses.

My next post will not have “Morality Posts” in the subject line, and will be a true transition away from the topic, because I think I’ve said enough! 🙂

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17 thoughts on “Morality Posts – Theism solves all the problems

  1. Let me give your five points a go 😉

    1. From his own character. I for one if making rules about what is good and not good would define goodness compared to me and nothing else, of course me being a fallen creature that goodness would not be perfect, as for God being perfect and all, would probably not have the same problem.

    2. I’d like you to expand on this point. However I do think i understand the objection. I’d say the fact that he is the creator of the universe and therefor you would be something that gives God the moral authority over us.

    3. I can answer this from a christian theological point of view. God created us in our image, therefor whatever he is, he creates in us to love. Right now it’s good to hug rather then punch, to forgive rather then to destroy, to love rather then hate. Let me put it this way: IF God was a God who was in his nature bad and created us in his image, we would love bad things and still call them good, because it’s been “programmed” into us to love the nature of God.

    4. Again, created in God’s image, and like the bible says “The law is written on our hearts”. We know what is good and bad, we know what is moral and immoral, because we are created in Gods image and therefore love what he loves.

    5. And five would give you a philosophical problem called “the theory of infinite regress”. That is, if the starter of something (In this case the universe) always had a cause behind him which would effect in his own creation, and so on and so forth. If you go back in time infinitely you could never reach a time that we are in now. The universe could never have happened since that happened in the “now” sometime ago, and if there is infinite regress that “now” could never be reached since time should regress infinitely 🙂

    I’d love a discussion so i’d love your objections 🙂

  2. Morality all comes from the same source. It is all man made. It may be attributed differently, but it is all man made just the same.

  3. Hi Gunnar,

    Thank you for your very respectful response. Your answers to my questions are similar to what I would have claimed back when I believed in Christ. Theists responses do differ on these questions however which causes more confusion on the issues. For example, Richard Swinburne and other theists I know of would answer #1 by saying that some moral truths exist independently of God – which is another way they solve question #2 by the way. I describe the difficulties I have with your response to question #1 in this post.

    And by the way, I was not listing these questions as objections to theism but rather as questions about morality that I would still find difficult to grapple with and resolve if I returned to theism.

    I don’t see why the answers to moral theory questions that atheistic moral realists give are any more problematic than the answers you have provided above to questions of theistic moral theory. My reasons for believing this are described in this post.

    Your answer to #3 actually looks like it could create some serious problems. “IF God was a God who was in his nature bad and created us in his image, we would love bad things and still call them good.” I realize that you purposely emphasized the “IF”, but this response actually gets to the heart of the problem for me. If I accepted your statement as true then it follows that the answer to my question #3 really is that we cannot know whether or not we are actually being tricked by an evil god into believing that he represents good. I realize that you have faith that the God you believe in is truly good, but again given your statement we wouldn’t have a way of knowing that, because you say that we would simply love whatever was the nature of our creator and would see the nature of our creator as good even if his nature really is bad. You may not see a problem in this because you just believe that the God you have chosen really is good, but this is a big dilemma to me. I believe this relates somewhat to Muslim terrorism, and Christians who try and justify bible passages such as I Samuel 15:3. These people are convinced that these things are good because they believe their god has declared it so. More moderate Christians (perhaps like yourself) see things differently, but that doesn’t resolve the dilemma.

    I think question #4 for me probably summarizes the toughest dilemma for me – and unfortunately the dilemma exists for any moral realist – whether they are atheists or theists…. My second part of this question was “Couldn’t we be mistaken”. I am an engineer, and for myself I am struck at how often I am wrong about even the most logical and mathematical things at work… things that I am so sure I am right on I end up realizing later that I had been mistaken. If I could be so easily mistaken on very clearly objective things such as math and logic then I can’t help but conclude that on such incredibly nebulous and complex topics such as these “big questions” of life I am much more likely to make mistakes. I am not arguing for the extreme view of radical skepticism here, because I do believe there are some things that are truly self-evident and that we can build our knowledge based on those things, but I can’t help but see that when it comes to the nebulous questions of moral theory and other “big questions” of life then humility in accepting that we could be wrong is quite reasonable. But therein lies the dilemma unfortunately.

    And your answer to #4 says “we know in our hearts”. This also reminds me of my blog post here. Sorry to forward you to so many of my other posts, but it helps me keep my comments from getting incredibly huge (this one is already way too long). Feel free to either ignore my links or read up on them if you feel interested.

    Thanks again,
    Howie

  4. Nice introduction to some difficult questions…I tend to think that the Problem of Morality is more difficult for theists than non-theists. In the evolution of the idea of the god of the Monotheisms, we’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner: He is all-powerful, perfect, the Epitome of Love, Wisdom, etc. So, if we lived in a world created by an all-powerful, Loving, Wise, Perfect being, we would expect the world to appear as X. However, it doesn’t, by a long shot. Hmmm…so, we then had to invent the idea of Satan as an agent that came and screwed everything up–thus we have a natural order that includes predation, often very cruel predation; similarly we have volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and tidal waves, and tornadoes, etc.

    However, from a non-theistic POV, this is exactly what we would expect from a world without an all-powerful, wise, and loving creator. Heb. 13:8 says JC is the same yesterday, today, and forever; Mal. 3:6 says the Lord changes not. However, between the Old and New Testaments is a world of change: War used to be OK, but now not so much (John 18:36 My kingdom is not of this world else would my servants fight…); it used to be that you were stoned for various crimes, but not now (vicarious redemption); “God” made rules governing the correct way to hold slaves and even sell your own daughters into slavery back in Deut or Lev…but I don’t think Jesus thought that was cool (even though he admonished “slaves, obey your masters as unto the Lord). But now…well, all Good Christians know that Slavery is Evil and they seem to get this revelation from the Bible. Which is the correct, Divinely Ordained, moral stance?

    And that’s just one small point…so, yeah, a deeeeeep subject. I look forward to following the links to your other articles!

  5. Yeah, I agree – what we see in our world definitely doesn’t match up with a belief in an all powerful, all knowing, all loving god. Other conceptions of deities (e.g. polytheism or a god who has different attributes than the 3 popular ones) might fit, which is why I also agree with your “painted ourselves into a corner” comment. Interestingly enough, I think other eastern religions make more sense when it comes to this problem, but then again just because it solves this particular problem doesn’t of course prove that their beliefs are true either.

  6. I believe morality is formed through the understanding of the balance of things – the reactions of any action we take. The results of the complete experience associated with the action and reaction form morality.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Jason. I’ve never really thought of morality in the way you have phrased it… interesting thoughts.

  8. Thank you Howie for inspiring me to write such thoughts! It ended up combining with some other recent thoughts to become a new blog post of my own!

  9. Hi Howie, since we are talking elsewhere, I thought I’d make a very brief comment here. My answers and thoughts:

    1. Some things are really true, in maths, in logic and in ethics, and God agrees with things that are really true.
    2. God is good and knows stuff that we don’t know – and he made us.
    3. We don’t. But if an evil God is tricking us, it doesn’t matter what we do, we are stuffed.
    4. We can always be mistaken, but if we are christians, we follow Jesus.
    5. Too unlikely to even think about.

    We need God to know right and wrong because we can’t determine ethics by the scientific method, and our moral sense is impaired.

    I think christians and atheists both have a moral sense, albeit impaired, but I think christians have a better basis. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy concludes its article on the moral argument: “if there is no God, morality is a more perilous enterprise than if there is.”

    Thanks.

  10. Hi UnkleE! We’ve met briefly at Finding Truth…how is it we need God to know right and wrong?

    I wrote a piece on morality over at my blog, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but “God” as the answer, I think, runs into more problems than “no God”. Obviously, in the great expanse of time betwixt the Old Testament and the Year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Thirteen, much has changed. Slavery is now almost universally seen as evil, and the Christians in America pride themselves on leading the Abolition Movement based on Christian Principles; however, I see nothing in the bible that condemns slavery, and even some specific instructions about the proper way to own, and beat, slaves (hint: on the beating, as long as they don’t die of it for 3 days or so then you didn’t kill them…they just happened to die for some reason). The NT says nothing to condemn slavery…that I remember.

    Abraham, Father of the Faithful, married his half-sister; Adam & Eve and their descendants for maybe 5 or 6 generations had no choice but to commit incest (I am throwing “5 or 6 generations” out as just some number wherein possibly enough genetic variation could have been present for it to no longer be “incest”), and the same is true for Noah’s 3 sons and their wives (unless there was wife-swapping…). Yet today, all Christians (except in Alabama…LOL j/k) consider incest morally evil, not merely a recipe for genetic failure.

    King David, a “man after God’s own heart”, had 7 wives. I don’t remember that God condemned him for that, but only for Bathsheeba on account of the evil way in which he gained her, yet today Christians consider polygamy a sin. The only scripture I know of that references the preferred number of wives says “he who wants to be a bishop should be blameless, the husband of One Wife, etc”. If you don’t want to be a bishop (or presumably some other type of Minister/Priest) then you’re home free! Some sites I’ve looked at say “while the bible doesn’t specify on the issue of polygamy, we can safely assume God’s Preference as it was Adam & Eve, not Adam, Eve, Sarah, Brittany, and Tara”. But, of course, that doesn’t work, b/c that also means God’s Preference is incest, even though that is genetically lethal, presumably, by God’s Design.

    So, here are some “problems of morality” that I think might be more specifically a problem for the God explanation than for the No God explanation. However, if our morality is derived Naturalistically, as a product of our evolution, it appears these things make more sense.

  11. Hi eSell, how are you going?

    In answer to your question, I think it is very clear that we humans need some help in the area of ethics. There are lots of beautiful things in the world, but lots of injustice, inequality, evil and suffering. And those institutions that are supposed to help us put things right (church, politics, law, etc) often seem as hurtful as anything else. We cannot agree on many important ethical issues, the rich people and countries rip off the poor. And so on.

    Don’t you think we could do with some circuit breaker, some help in knowing the truth, reaching agreement and actually making positive change?

    Your litany of ethical problems in the Bible makes an impressive case against believing the Bible, taken as a whole and without discrimination, to give us detailed ethical rules. But it isn’t a case against God unless you equate the Bible, uniformly and indiscriminately, with God. Which I do not, and neither do you I suppose.

    So I think that you have misunderstood christian ethics, as I understand them at least, in two ways:

    1. God isn’t interested in rules, but in freedom and maturity. The New Testament says this quite clearly. So the essence of christian ethics isn’t a bunch of moral rules, but a couple of simple moral principles, an attitude of wanting to please God, and a trust that God’s Spirit will help us live out the principles.

    2. There is progression right through the Bible, and clearly many of the older things are superseded. This is (I believe) because the human race is growing up, and we understand things better now. Mocking the Old Testament is a little like mocking a child for not being an adult.

    So, in answer to your questions, those are a few of my ideas. Does that provide an answer, or offer you any new understandings? Best wishes.

  12. Hi Uncle E,

    There’s some stuff here that touches on interesting things we haven’t discussed before so I have some things I’d like to add.

    My 3rd to last paragraph in my original post above describing the positive aspects of there being a God actually shows I partially agree with you with regard to the fact that we could use help in making our world a good place for everyone to live. But obviously the fact that it would be nice and helpful is no proof of the existence of any gods. In fact I see it otherwise – you said this:

    I think it is very clear that we humans need some help in the area of ethics. There are lots of beautiful things in the world, but lots of injustice, inequality, evil and suffering. And those institutions that are supposed to help us put things right (church, politics, law, etc) often seem as hurtful as anything else. We cannot agree on many important ethical issues, the rich people and countries rip off the poor. And so on.

    For me this pushes me in the direction of actually having more doubts that any gods exist. What you described would be the kind of thing I would expect if the tri-omni type of God of monotheism did NOT exist. And this is more confirmation for me of my original point here that theism doesn’t seem to solve things. And my point of my 5 questions was not that people could be unable to come up with dogmatic answers to these questions. It’s that these questions are actually difficult questions to try and find answers that for me are justified. But again I don’t think atheists or theists are in any better shape here. And by the way, you could have come up with a better dogmatic response to 3, and I know for sure you are intelligent enough to come up with a better response to 5. I certainly could, but it would be a dogmatic assertion that I wouldn’t know how to justify.

    You know I like to find places of agreement because it is simply more enjoyable, and frankly there is much on the topic of morality that you and I do not see eye to eye on. But I think we could maybe find something: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain no matter if there are moral rules that exist or not. My gut feeling is you feel the same. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say people like you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!!”. Is this a viewpoint you have a problem with?

  13. Hi Howie, thanks for continuing the conversation. I’ll see if I can respond to everything.

    1. My response to eSell was not an attempt to “prove” God exists, just to answer his question about why we need God.

    2. Yes I agree, the state of the world is a strong argument against God’s existence (or his goodness). But (i) it must be balanced against other arguments that point to his existence, and (ii) the argument from suffering depends on suffering being really and truly bad (i.e. morally evil), but that requires objective morality and hence (I would argue) God. Without God and objective morality, we have suffering but no argument. So our reaction to the suffering points to God even while the suffering itself points away from him.

    3. Yes, I could have answered some of the questions better, but I was trying to be brief. Re #3, the arguments that (for me) establish God’s existence also establish his character (to some degree). From the cosmological and design arguments we get power, creativity, skill and intention; from the argument from reason we get rationality and intention to create rational beings, from the moral argument we get goodness, etc. So I don’t think the evidence points to an evil God, though I agree that human suffering points to a tough God. Re #5, I don’t think polytheism makes much sense and Occam’s Razor works against it. But then again, the Trinity might look like polytheism to some, so who can say?

    4. And I agree with your last point as far as it goes. I am happy to work for alleviation of suffering with non-believers, and I support organisations like Oxfam and Amnesty. But I believe this life is not the only life on offer, and a much greater, better, longer life is available to all who wish to take up the offer. So I have to want others to receive that life, so I have to have another focus as well. I don’t believe argument and putting people down helps them get to that point, but sometimes strong arguments are necessary, if not for the person I’m arguing with, then for others looking on. So I am always trying to balance those two sometimes conflicting requirements – or as the Bible says, speaking the truth in love.

    Best wishes.

  14. Sounds good. I don’t have too much to add or disagree with here. Your point 3 is now more of what I had expected you’d say and you’ve stated it fairly. I’ve always had a hard time seeing how the philosophical arguments for God really lead me to concluding that He exists. I understand why it works for other people, but there are even some theists who concede that the proofs really are not that convincing and in some cases they think some of them may be hurting rather than helping to convince. I was going to talk a little more about some of the proofs in a few posts I’ll be doing soon. Occam’s Razor is also a point of confusion for me and while I’m not sure of how reliable it is I use it’s reasoning myself (sometimes without even realizing it) in some cases.

  15. Yes, I think I have said what I wanted to say now. I personally find the evidence and the various arguments very important to my final belief, but I know that many christians (and, I suspect, many non-believers too) believe (or disbelieve) for more personal and less objective reasons.

    Thanks.

  16. Yes, truly a different perspective. Even though there is, apparently, “objective” morality, it isn’t in the bible. Growing up a Biblical Literalist, I find this dual philosophy hard to grasp…but I guess that’s my problem.

    I wasn’t trying to say “look at how horrible the OT is”, though I understand how it came across that way. I was simply saying that the Morality taught in the bible changes…but if the bible isn’t supposed to be the Source of Objective morality, I guess that doesn’t matter. It does say, though, that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever” and God declares in Malachi “I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob (or was it Israel?) are not consumed”. The argument of “God makes laws that work well for the people of the time” that I’ve heard before, and which is what your response is sounding like you’re maybe trying to say, really doesn’t work, otherwise why bother with Divinely Ordained morality? If God changes his Laws with Society, as our laws and morality are doing, then we don’t need it.

    But I might add extra-biblical examples of an Inconsistent morality that leads me to think that Objective Morality doesn’t exist. Is “torture is bad” proof of Objective Morality? Everyone has always known that torture is bad, but they used to do it because it WAS bad and they wanted to be mean. Now we’re not as mean.

    God is supposed to be Perfect. His laws for us are supposed to be perfect. The laws and most of the principles in the Bible (with the exception of “Love thy neighbour as yourself” and such like) are anything but.

    But perhaps that means I have a skewed view of who/what “God” is supposed to be…

  17. Even though there is, apparently, “objective” morality, it isn’t in the bible.

    Hi eSell, thanks for replying. I’m sorry if I didn’t explain myself clearly enough (always a problem in comments when trying to be brief). I think there is indeed objective morality, it just isn’t found in legalistic rules, and is not as clear in the OT as in the NT. The objective morality is in Jesus’ summary of the whole law: “Love God whole-heartedly and love your neighbour as yourself.” If we do that, everything else will fall into place.

    the Morality taught in the bible changes … and God declares in Malachi “I change not

    I agree with you here completely, and I cannot understand how any christian can think that the whole of the Bible applies equally to us today. How could rules for 3000 years ago in the Middle East be totally relevant for today with our different issues? In fact, all christians pretty much recognise some progression and variation through the Bible, at the very least from the OT to the NT, though they may express this understanding differently.

    And it isn’t hard to see why. If you are a parent, or have observed parents, you’ll know that a good parent adapts their parenting to the needs, personality and maturity of the child. They start with simple rules like “Don’t touch!”, to better explanations of the rules (“It’s hot and it will burn you”) through to freedom because the child is now mature enough to act independently.

    It would be surprising if God weren’t a good parent in this way, and so we see simple rules in the early OT (and elsewhere in the world at that time) gradually giving way to a more mature approach in the NT, so that Paul is able to say in the NT that “we no longer serve in the way of the written law, but in the way of the Spirit”.

    If God changes his Laws with Society, as our laws and morality are doing, then we don’t need it.

    So you see, God’s law doesn’t change, it is just the way it is expressed in different situations that changes.

    extra-biblical examples of an Inconsistent morality that leads me to think that Objective Morality doesn’t exist. Is “torture is bad” proof of Objective Morality? Everyone has always known that torture is bad, but they used to do it because it WAS bad and they wanted to be mean. Now we’re not as mean.

    Do you really think that we torture less now than before? Christian USA undertook “rendition” to send prisoners to Egypt where they could be tortured with impunity. And do you really believe there is on objective morality? e.g. that pedophilia might be OK for one person or culture but not for another?

    God is supposed to be Perfect. His laws for us are supposed to be perfect.

    But what does perfect mean? How do you judge perfect? I think it means adapted to the situation and achieving the objectives. So God’s law (love God and love people) is perfectly true, and is applied differently in different situations.

    I wonder, in closing, if you are basing your understanding of christianity on a bad version of US evangelical christianity. If that is your experience, then that is understandable, but my personal opinion as a christian for more than 50 years, is that US christianity is generally in very poor shape, and I would recommend you learn about a more Jesus-oriented form.

    Best wishes.

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