A Naturalistic Explanation of Morality: Refuting the Moral Argument for God

During debates, theists often try to argue that morality is an external concept which needs a lawgiver and that lawgiver is God. The moral argument often parallels with the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG). I will offer a naturalistic basis for morality and refute the moral argument that is often presented.

The moral argument is basically this:

A) Morality Exists.

B) Morality is an external concept that is not tangible, so it must need some sort of external lawgiver

C) This lawgiver must be a supernatural being.

D) This supernatural being is God.

There are various problems with this argument that I will put to rest in this blog post. It's very difficult to argue against one specific version of the Christian god or how individual theists imagine him to be/interpret him/the Bible/etc. As always, I try to account for a great deal of beliefs about this god...

  1. Even if the atheist accepts that morality is an external concept which needs a lawgiver (which they shouldn't), how do we know that this lawgiver is any specific deity? The theist who argues for a specific god has all of his/her work cut out for him/her after presenting this argument. The lawgiver could easily be (if the premise is accepted) any number of infinite supernatural beings/illogical/incomprehensible/something we have never thought of/etc. Again, I would not suggest that anyone should accept that morality is an external concept that needs a lawgiver. Insisting that God could be the only explanation because we don't have another explanation is an argument from ignorance and a God of the Gaps argument.

  1. In order to refute the idea that morality is an external concept that needs a lawgiver (God), anyone can simply argue that morality is a product of all of our combined human knowledge, research, findings, etc over the span of our existence and the product of evolution. We “get” morality from our culture, our experiences, our findings in philosophy, science, psychology, etc. Many of us “got” our morality starting from our parents, teachers, role models, etc. We modify our morals throughout our life when we learn new things, have new experiences, and come to new conclusions just as we do with political views, religious views, or almost anything else. Early in our history, slavery was acceptable, but after really thinking about slavery and realizing that owning that owning another human being as property was wrong. This idea did not come from God, but rather was a product of humans coming together to influence opinions, change minds, and fight wars for liberation of human beings.

    Humans discovered that we need to cooperate in order for society to thrive and for our survival. Survival of society is by no means the only consideration for morality, but this is a main highlight and is a very good explanation for how morality developed. We realize that other people are just like us; we often have the same basic wants and needs of shelter, love, food, privacy, sanctity, stability, and justice. We project the wants of ourselves onto others and treat people well because of this idea and many other basic considerations such as wanting to be accepted, the desire to stay out of jail, the desire for a good reputation, etc. At a very basic level, some people are simply afraid to break rules because the don't want to be caught. Of course some people will do bad things and cheat others, but most of us are generally good people and can agree about many basic ideas dealing with morality. “Moral universals” exist because all people around the world are humans and, again, have the same wants and desires. People of similar cultures often obey and respect cultural mores and have certain taboos. It's not that “God wrote the moral law on our hearts,” but rather that morality has a natural explanation. When considering multiple explanations, as Occam's Razor dictates, we ought to choose the one with least complications. Theists and atheists should accept that morality does not need a supernatural lawgiver.

  1. When you read the Bible, you find that this all-loving, all-perfect, all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful being known as God (or at least the writers of the passages, as many Christians would say because, of course, it's not all literal) commands people to commit atrocities, accepts human sacrifices, and gives rules for slavery. When you read about the rules for slavery in the Bible, you use your own standards (not the standards of God) and realize that slavery is wrong for various reasons. Perhaps you don't want to be a slave. Perhaps you don't think it is right to own another human being. The list goes on... The moment you use your standards for morality to disagree with God's character or the character of any favored character in the Bible, you're immediately using your own standards for morality, not those made by an external lawgiver.

    If God is supposed to be this lawgiver, why did he command so many horrid things and give rules for slavery? Theists often say “those rules were for those people at that time,” but this is insufficient because this so called absolute morality should not change over time (unless, of course, you'd argue that we should own slaves, but then you're just out of the discussion). God should not have given rules for slavery and slavery should not be acceptable at any time. If you read the Bible and dismiss all of the bad things as just people writing it, then this objection may not apply to you, although I don't think that that way of reading the Bible is thoroughly honest. On thing that Christians can't throw out is Jesus being offered as a human sacrifice in order to attone for the sins of people. An all-loving being should not find this to be a moral act, a loving plan, or something desirable. People also should not be condemned on the basis of belief, thoughts, or disagreeing with the commands and rules of God. I don't typically enjoy this refutation because it often opens up mini-debates about the literal value of the Bible/interpretation and other side-discussions that aren't really hammering home at the issue. Theists also certainly won't accept that their god is immoral and will make up reasons for him to seem moral/write off the bad passages. The worst of it is when people say, "If God told me to kill my family, I'd certainly do it" or "If God told people to murder babies, it is a moral action." I've experienced that several times in-person.

  1. It does not follow that because a concept exists a supernatural/external being exists. We know and accept various concepts like numbers, infinity, compassion, arrogance, etc. We certainly can't touch, taste, smell, feel, or hear these things, but we can use language to describe these concepts and have a meaningful discussion. We use numbers, for example, in order to coherently talk about the quantity of objects, age, etc. Since numbers are an external concept, does this mean that there needs to be a supernatural being that created numbers? What about democracy? Democracy is a concept in which people vote and elect officials to office. Can we touch democracy? Of course not, but we can realize and understand that this is a concept, just like morality. We realize that both democracy and morality are the products of human discourse and we can agree on basic concepts, but disagree on specifics...it's no problem.

  1. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a great objection to the moral argument. I cover this in much detail in the link that I provided. Click it :)

Opponents of atheistic arguments typically try to strawman atheist positions and say things like, “Atheists only believe in the material, so they can't believe in morality because you can't experience it with the senses.” Materialists don't deny the idea of concepts and ideas, for concepts and ideas arise from the human brain.

We also don't need absolute/unchanging morality to have standards of right and wrong. Let's simply kill this ridiculous argument and agree that people are going to disagree about morality whether or not God exists. Some people won't kiss on a first date. Some people won't wear shoes into a house of a stranger because they think this is disrespectful. Some people won't give money to religious charities because they feel that the money is not spent well as it is in secular charities...and these are just simple ideas. We can still have standards of right and wrong and disagree...and it's okay to disagree.

The idea that there is no absolute standard does not for one moment give us license to say, “Oh, I don't believe in any gods, so I'm free to go raping, murdering, and pillaging and this is okay because I say so. “ Rational beings simply don't do this for obvious reasons. If this were true, why don't we see constant everyday crime by all of the non-theists in countries around the world? Why am I and my fellow atheists friends not all incarcerated and awaiting the death penalty? The idea of No God – No moral basis is absurd. Regardless, this is bordering on a red herring argument.

Some theists, as a last ditch effort, will try to argue that Hitler and Stalin were atheists and what they thought they did was right so it was right. I dealt with this objection here. This is another red herring argument that does nothing to demonstrate that a god exists. Hitler and Stalin did not kill people because they were atheists...Hitler and Stalin killed people because they were twisted, evil, and forcing ridiculous ideologies on people. Atheism does not have any ideology whatsoever; there is no link from “I don't believe in God” to “Murdering millions of people is an acceptable action.” Regardless, the coin can be flipped and we can argue about the atrocities of religious people, but this would probably also be irrelevant to the discussion.

It's often interesting that morality often is the topic of discussion when claims of God's existence are levied. People often just don't think about a naturalistic basis for morality and think that if people don't believe in any gods they will misbehave and have no reason to behave well. Atheists and theists ought to behave well because they respect others, don't want to go to fail, want to be treated fairly, and want to make this life great for themselves and others. If you're interested in reading more about a naturalistic basis for morality, read Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate and Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil. Theists and atheists should enjoy these books.

As always, if you have any comments or objections to my arguments or ideas, feel free to post!