How can one be good WITH God?

The theist charge that atheists can’t have morality without a sky god is pretty laughable. But the error in the argument goes so deep that the argument is actually much more devastating when applied to theistic morality: how can a person following theistic morality be good?

Suppose your sky god decreed it morally good to steal, rape, and kill; and morally wrong to live peacefully. Would the atheists then be living immorally for abstaining from these activities? Clearly not. The theist argument presupposes that theistic morality corresponds to our intuitive morality. If theistic morality just codifies our innate moral sense, then it’s at best supplementing it; it’s not the source of morality.

The more interesting case occurs if theistic morality contradicts our intuitive morality. In this case, we say that god’s moral code is wrong, not that our innate one is wrong. So god is fundamentally constrained to codifying the morality inherent in human nature. If god deviates from that, we deem his morality to be wrong.

The problem with the theist argument is that morality is a collection of evolved instincts, not a set of rules passed down from on high (by gods or rulers). (I suggest reading Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue for the argument from evolutionary psychology.)

So: if you follow intuitive morality, then you will act morally. If you follow theistic morality, then you may or may not act morally (depending on how closely the theistic morality corresponds to intuitive morality—usually very closely, otherwise it wouldn’t survive long.) The real question is this: if one is simply following god’s rules, how can we be sure that they will behave morally? As soon as god gives them the green light to steal, rape, and murder, they can override their innate moral qualms with religious justification.

About Autor

I’m an undergrad student ultimately aiming for an economics PhD. In a nutshell, I’m an atheist, market anarchist, and paleo health enthusiast. In other words, I reject God, Government, and Grain.
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6 Responses to How can one be good WITH God?

  1. Michelle says:

    I've always thought that almost all religions are just an organized way to give basically the same common morals. I don't need a religion to tell me not to kill and not to steal. At Starbucks the guy rung up my order to a much lower cost than it should have been and I corrected him to the higher price. I didn't have a religion tell me this, and I bet you most of the religious or all people in general wouldn't have corrected this.

    I've definitely heard the argument that you can't be moral without a god and I've never understood that. It's like they believe that you need religion to give you morals and you wouldn't do that otherwise. Glad you wrote this article!

  2. Sean Stewart says:

    Being both a libertarian and an atheist I find it interesting how similar arguments of morality are used against both subjects. When a theists ask how can you be moral with no god, what is stopping you from murdering, stealing and raping, or a liberal asks you who would stop people from murdering, steal and raping with out a gov't, they both suggest that humans are naturally immoral and that we must need a god, or a government to stop our barbarous human behavior. I think it also applies to things like spontaneous order and evolution both complex systems that are organized without a designer. I dunno about you, but I just have more trust that human beings and nature then liberals and theists .

  3. William says:

    Toban, I think your main argument makes a good point; if nothing else, appealing to a higher power for justification of a moral code is dubious because it might be based on an appeal to an authority another person does not accept. That said, I'm not so sure our intuitive moral sentiments are always that helpful. Here's an example: is it morally appropriate for a starving person to violently steal food from someone else? On one hand, I think our intuitions would at least lead us to strongly empathize with the starving person…on the other hand, we will be repulsed by the act of violence the starving person commits…our intuitions lead us to two incompatible decisions, and I'm wondering if our intuitions alone may be able to always give a "right" answer. I'm somewhat skeptical about the existence of "right" answers to morality; instead, I think the–pardon the pun–best we can do might be to reach a "best" answer.

    I really want to read Ridley's book, (and Theory of Moral Sentiments and Huemer's book), perhaps those will give me some insight to this topic. I'm curious what you think about it

  4. Peter Andrews says:

    Interesting point Toban. Even if “God’s” rules are reasonable I still feel that doing (or not doing) things because you have determined for yourself that it is the correct/moral action is far more laudable. Basically, are we good because of carrots and sticks or because we are moral beings?

  5. Steve says:

    I would love to see your response and breakdown of Faith and Reason by Pope John Paul II sometime!

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