MORALITY, IN MY OPINION – Johan Erasmus

A short(ish) response to a long letter.

Original Article on News 24

I cannot respond to everything in this article since that would make my writing longer than the religious text the author is attacking, but allow my opinion on Morality-in-my-opinion.

There seems to be this false idea that Christians believe that one needs to have belief in God in order to act morally. This is something that the article in question is arguing as well as the so called ‘New Atheism’. I realize that my attempt to clarify what Christians mean by objective morality is optimistic, but I’ll give it a shot.

No intelligent Christian (perhaps an oxymoron to most on this forum) thinks that atheists or agnostics are immoral. The only point we wish to make is that in the absence of God, morality is subjective. In fact most respected atheistic philosophers will grant this. It is really not a controversial point. To say something is objective is to say that it is independent of what people think or perceive. By contrast, to say something is subjective is just to say that it is dependent on what humans think or perceive.

The ‘VillageIdiot’ made the point that it gives us some evolutionary advantage to behave morally and that explains our moral inclination, hence God is out of work. Christians could grant that moral evolution, if you will, is helping us determine our moral beliefs, but the question about the nature of those moral beliefs, is an entirely different thing. We shouldn’t confuse the question about how we came to know things are right and wrong with the question of whether something really is right or wrong. This confuses moral epistemology and moral ontology. I am entirely committed to the idea that our moral faculties developed over time (in the same way that our understanding of the physical world develops), but that does nothing to undermine the objectivity of our moral beliefs. It is a text book case of the genetic fallacy which tries to discredit an idea by showing how it came to be. For example, let’s assume a person confronts you by saying the only reason you believe the earth is round is because you live in the 21st century, so that if you lived in antiquity you would have believed the earth is flat, hence you cannot really say the earth is round. The problem with this argument is the fact that the earth’s shape is independent of what people believed in antiquity.

The article I’m responding to makes the same mistake with respects to morality when it states that we don’t need God since we can explain moral behaviour from a social evolutionary/neurological/altruistic perspective. The point the Christian is making refers to the nature of morality and not about how we came to know what is moral.

Consider Richard Dawkins’s point he makes in Out of Eden p. 133

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”

I think Dawkins here gives us an honest portrayal of the nature of morality in the absence of God and it seems to be something that agnostic Arthur Allen Leff agrees with. He writes in Unspeakable Ethics, Duke Law Journal:

As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad

Starving the poor is wicked

Buying and selling each other is depraved

Those who stood up resisting Hitler, Staling, Amin, Pol Pot… have earned salvation

Those who acquiesced deserved to be damned

There is in the world such a thing as evil

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.

There are still loads of arguments to respond to, but for now I simply wish, rather optimistically, to put right the idea that Christians think that you need to believe in God in order to behave morally. I have lots of sceptic friends who are much better people than I am. However, that is not the question. The issue is about the nature of morality and not about how we have come to act morally.