(estimated reading time 10 minutes)
I’m a fan of watching formal debate. One of my favourites is William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan debating and discussing the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?”. because it’s a topic I find pretty interesting, and both men are lively, engaging debaters. I was struck by how poorly Craig argued his case in comparison to his usual performances, but then the loosey-goosey format didn’t seem to play to his strengths. I’d never heard of Shelly Kagan before but after hearing his passionate defence of animal welfare I’ve decided that I probably love him. Anyway, the discussion made me think about some things: Meaning and morality, the priorities we hold, and the different ways I thought about them both pre- and post-deconversion.
At the outset, I have to admit that I might have found Craig’s argument to be difficult to fully comprehend. Craig stressed that his argument wasn’t “life, if it is finite, is meaningless” but rather “life, however long it is, is meaningless if God doesn’t exist”. But then, he also kept on talking about how our existences are rendered meaningless by the eventual end of everything, and at the same time, he didn’t appear to make a very robust argument that only the existence of God can bring meaning to human actions; he asserted it, certainly, but without much in the way of supporting arguments (that I could follow at least). That being the case, I have understood his argument that “human life is only meaningful if God exists” to be much the same as the argument that “human life is only meaningful if it is infinite”, and have responded accordingly. So if what I write appears to be a strawman, it’s unintentional. Listen to the debate yourself before deciding if my characterisation of Craig’s argument is fair. I certainly did intend it to be. Regardless of whether Craig made that argument or seemed to make that argument, though, bear in mind that it’s one many religious folk make. Also, this isn’t a debate review but more a jumping-off point to think about the debate topic.
As part of his affirmation that God is necessary for morality, Craig talked about ultimate meaning; about how, if there’s no God, then everything in the universe will eventually die, and the sun will explode, and therefore nothing matters and there’s no reason be moral.
I thought about how, as a Christian, I would have certainly agreed with him. “If there’s no God, if there’s no afterlife, the why bother with anything? Nothing ultimately matters!” Even as an atheist, at one time I would have possibly agreed with him that life without God or eternal life is absurd and tragic. Which is why it’s so strange to me that these days, it’s hard for me to empathise with that perspective. Life being finite doesn’t make me feel like it’s meaningless. The only thing that ever really makes me terribly sad about the longterm future of humanity is that I won’t be there to see how it all goes and how it ends; I won’t get to see us colonise other planets or find life in faraway galaxies or see vines grow over half-buried skyscrapers. I want to live forever to see these things because I’m deeply curious about them, but I don’t think that living forever would somehow grant meaning to my life that wasn’t there before. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand what this “ultimate meaning” so coveted by Christians and apologists actually even means or indeed why I’m supposed to desire it over and above ordinary, run-of-the-mill meaning – to the point that meaning itself is meaningless without being “ultimate”. What’s the difference between meaning and ultimate meaning? I believe that usually when Christians talk about “ultimate meaning” they really mean “infinite meaning”; something that could be expressed as meaning that never ends, or eternal consequences to our finite lives and actions. But why would I particularly want those things? I’m going to die someday; why should it matter whether the significance I perceive in the events of my life outlasts not only my life, and my children’s lives, but also the heat death of the universe? Presumably by then everyone I know and care about will be dead anyway, and humans might well have evolved into something unrecognisable from what we are now, or maybe our genetic line will be completely extinguished. All of this will happen regardless of whether or not there is a god or an afterlife.
I don’t know how these facts detract meaning from life, but they seem to unsettle Craig. I think that in the end, it’s just a matter of perspective. Just as one person is willing to invest their money in a fancy sportscar while another prizes a stuffed animal handed down as an heirloom, and another would give their life savings for one of the last surviving pairs of Elvis Presley’s underpants, so different people perceive significance in different things and derive meaning from life in different ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If believing in eternal life gives some people some protection from existential despair and helps them to feel that their life matters, then that’s fine. But to me, the reason my days in existence matter is, partially at least, because there are so few of them. Just as scarcity drives up the value of a diamond, or a work of art, so time is precious to me because I know that there is a finite supply. I don’t need eternity to find meaning in life because life seems to be full of meaning anyway, all by itself. Or rather, life seems to be full of meanings: love, friendship, peacemaking, community, pleasure, procreation, learning, etc etc. I also find meanings in my actions; I do them for a reason. That reason may be to be a gracious host; to look after a child or an elderly relative; to build a business; to rescue an animal, or raise a child, or plant a tree, or give blood. My partner works very late, and most days I make dinner and light candles for when he comes home. In that moment, that’s my purpose. These all seem like fine meanings to me, even if they only last a little while and don’t have an eternal impact; the candle goes out and the dinner is eaten, the moment goes, but it made someone I love feel better than he did before he walked through the door. And at least the meaning I ascribe to my actions is something real in the present moment; I don’t have to imagine or hope for an otherworldly place where my actions matter, because they matter in the here and now. I don’t have to hope that there’s a god out there in whose mind I have meaning and significance, because I already know that I do in my own mind and in the minds of those who love me. In light of this, the eventual heat death of the universe doesn’t affect my sense of meaning at all.
And I know that at this point someone might say “Ah! But we aren’t talking about whether or not you feel as though you have meaning. We’re talking about whether or not you do really have meaning!”. However, meaning is not a concrete thing which exists the way tables and chairs do; it’s a concept, and the only way I know of for a concept to exist is to be generated in a mind. My mind is capable of generating it, so having a god generate the concept in his mind doesn’t seem to make it any more real than it is if I generate it for myself; both me and God have minds. Or at least, God has a mind if he exists. I have the benefit of knowing that I and my loved ones find my existence to be more than worthless and pointless, but I can’t know if God thinks anything at all.
What strikes me about this debate is that, as Craig points out in his closing statement, most of the discussion centres around whether a godless worldview can supply morality, and Kagan doesn’t put much time into contesting Craig’s assertion that “If God exists, then you will have a sound foundation for morality”. However, I spent much of the debate wondering how, exactly, this is the case. Craig argued that people are not bound by morality unless God exists, because we have no reason to care about it aside from his existence. If God doesn’t exist, then life is finite, and there’s no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, so it doesn’t matter how you live. Again, I know I agreed with him back in my Christian days. However, these days I find it difficult to understand how the existence of God establishes objective morality to which we are all bound, or why God’s sense of morality is right while everyone else’s might not be.
For example, Craig argues that “…without someone to prohibit something or command something it’s very hard to see how something can be prohibited or commanded”. But it’s only very hard for Craig to see this because he doesn’t seem to count prohibitions and commands from fellow human minds – parents, spouses, the state, authority figures, the wider community, friends etc etc, as at all meaningful (I’m not arguing that instructions from these people constitute the grounds for moral duties, but rather wondering why Craig is willing to accept prohibitions and commands from a god as a moral foundation but not prohibitions and commands from other minds). He seems to have some background assumptions about the intrinsic moral gravity of a command from God that he doesn’t think applies to other people, and that’s a view that I don’t share.
OK, so you might argue that God’s intuitions about morality are objectively right and correct because he created morality and therefore knows how it’s supposed to operate. But being the creator of something doesn’t mean you get to say that other people are using it wrong. People are constantly repurposing and reinventing things, often to the betterment of humanity. E.L James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey to be read in full and provide titillation – but I’d rather use a copy as a coaster to keep my desk clean. And perhaps that would provide much greater benefit to me than if I were to sit and read it in full (in fact I’m almost sure it would). In the same way, maybe God’s priorities are different from ours, but who gets to decide that his priorities are the right ones and ours are wrong?
“Well, God is all-knowing. And if he can see the consequences of every action, then he can tell you if that action is ultimately harmful.”
However, this is an admission that morality is something discoverable through knowledge; that the more you know about the consequences of certain actions, the closer you can get to understanding right and wrong. Therefore in principle morality is not something that requires divine revelation or explanation. It’s an admission that morality – even objective morality – can exist without God. To some extent it seems to chime with Sam Harris’s argument that science can lead us to an understanding of objective morality.
Of course, in thinking about this subject I am reminded of the Euthyphro Dilemma, rephrased here:
“Are God’s moral commands good because God commands them, or does he command them because they are good?”
The theist response to the dilemma is typically: God is perfectly good because his nature is perfectly good. Or as Craig puts it in this debate, “God’s own nature will be the good and define the good as all things relate to it”. But that seems to merely raise the question: What makes God’s nature perfectly good? Either you are proposing a tautology with no explanatory value: “God is good” becomes “God’s nature is God’s nature”, or there is some kind of yardstick of goodness, outside of God himself, by which God’s nature can be measured. Thus you could reframe the Euthyphro Dilemma something like this:
Is God’s nature good because he chooses for his nature to be what is good, or is goodness itself good because it is in accordance with God’s nature?
Theists seem to want to stick with the tautology, and refute the view that morality is a tool that exists apart from God that we use to maximise human wellbeing (however nebulous a concept “wellbeing” is).
They want to argue that apart from the existence of a god, there is no reason to care about maximising human wellbeing. Sometimes, they point out, a morally wrong action is more beneficial to an individual than a right one. While this is a fair point, the problem comes when they try to replace wellbeing as a motivation for moral actions, with avoidance of punishment in the afterlife: “You should be moral because otherwise you’ll be punished in Hell in the afterlife!”. The problem is obvious: Hell is only a threat because it is a place of eternal and total separation from wellbeing. So if God says “Thou shalt not steal”, it makes sense to follow that command because if you don’t, your wellbeing might be severely, permanently, destroyed. That means we’re still talking about human wellbeing, not replacing it with some kind of God-based moral imperative.
And what, then, if the command is “Thou shalt steal”, and the consequence of disobedience is Hell? In light of this possibility becomes clear that the threat of eternal punishment doesn’t necessarily create the conditions under which it’s always in the interests of human wellbeing to act in a way we’d consider morally good. Those conditions are only created if the commands are always good.
Given everything discussed above, it makes sense that instead of making the kinds of arguments Craig does, theists would be better off just acknowledging and agreeing to two things: that human wellbeing matters deeply when it comes to questions of morality, regardless of whether God exists or human life is infinite, and that the discovery of moral truth isn’t contingent on the existence of God. If they agreed to these, we could move on to the question:
Is human wellbeing better served by adhering to God’s moral standards, or ones that we decide upon for ourselves?
Which is (to me at least) a far more interesting question. The first most obvious answer is that we should do as God tells us because he has full knowledge of how to make human wellbeing flourish. Meanwhile, we puny humans only have partial knowledge, hard-won over millennia.
On the other hand, the question arises, How do we know that we can trust that God cares about human wellbeing? Sure, he knows the outcome of every action, but why should we suppose that human wellbeing is the outcome he most desires? I mean, we humans know at least something about how to create conditions in which human wellbeing flourishes. We have (for the most part) worked out, for example, that genocide isn’t conducive to it, nor is slavery, and nor is torturing people. And yet we also know that God himself (is claimed to have) invented a place of eternal torture for human beings, and commanded genocide, and condoned (or at least allowed) slavery. That doesn’t seem like the actions of a being whose overriding concern is human welfare.
I suspect that this scrutiny of God’s moral character is why many theists want to assert that good is God and God is good; because if it weren’t so, then we’d be free to critically examine God’s claims to goodness and even reject God and his commands.
After watching the debate and thinking about this subject a bit, my conclusion is still that no, I don’t think God is necessary for morality. But that doesn’t tell me much about exactly what is necessary for morality. And that’s something for me to think about.