The question of what makes morality persists
Sitting in the basement of Smith Memorial Student Union a few days ago, I came across an interesting sight. There, huddled around the wall-mounted television, were about 30 or 40 students. They were watching the Republican presidential candidate debate, of all things.
For what reason? To heckle it, obviously. Even as a registered Republican, I’ll agree that there was plenty there to heckle.
I only gave it part of my attention. Somewhere along the line, a question arose for the candidates regarding the role of faith in their respective decision-making processes. The crowd of observers was gleefully subdued.
It is impossible (nay, incomprehensible) for one to be a moral leader without faith in God, according to Newt Gingrich, the two-parts clever, one-part blowhard GOP hopeful. More was said, but it does not matter. The response from our audience in the basement of SMSU was immediate: Incredulity. Consternation. Indignation. Some looked downright pissed at the very suggestion.
I must say, as an atheist myself, I am actually a little divided. I don’t agree with what Gingrich said, but it raises an interesting question. Can one be a moral leader without faith in God? Is morality possible without belief in a supreme being?
Morality, at least in the sense of a permanent, unyielding code, is impossible without the endorsement of a wisdom greater than that of mankind. In other words, without God to determine moral behavior, morals and ethics must be designed by human beings. They are therefore flexible, temporal and contingent on whatever culture they apply to.
This would seem to support the fact that “morality” is not universal, changes with the preference of the period and can be manipulated to serve whatever ulterior interest. From this, I would conclude that morals and ethics in the absence of divine endorsement are relative, i.e., meaningless.
This is not an argument for religion, per se. Atheism, by its very nature, considers religion itself to be an invention of mankind. Thus, the above argument could just as well be applied to any and all religions, as well as whatever moral code they each happen to be built upon. It is often noted that the Ten Commandments make no mention of slavery, for example, or rape, or such modern “absurdities” as equal rights.
I believe I have now effectively alienated both sides. The essence of my argument is not that atheists and deists both are inherently without morality or ethics. Rather, I am arguing for relativity. Neither side is amoral by proxy. However, as both derive their morality from the same source (i.e., themselves) neither has the right to claim moral certitude over the other.
This is an important distinction. We can find villains among either camp, if we so wish. I could easily cite atrocities done under the ideology of secularism, as well as under the banner of religion. I see no exclusive correlation between maliciousness and ideology of any kind.
Instead, I blame the fervor that drives it. Religion does not drive people to commit evil, nor does lack of faith in God imply an absence of good.
Overly vocal and self-righteous atheists should take heed. It is foolish to say that lack of faith in God will rob those who would make war of their destructive zealotry, i.e., the argument that no one goes to war who does not have some form of faith.
To those who believe this, remember that those who fought in the Crusades did not go to war with the Muslims out of a lack of faith in Islam. Rather, they fought out of conviction—not in the truthfulness of Christianity, but that their beliefs were superior to those of their enemies.
The delusion that they alone were righteous justified to the Crusaders the use of violence against Muslims. The same delusion has afflicted everyone from the Nazis to suicide bombers. Belief—in God, or in God’s absence—is inconsequential to setting a moral standard.
This is all intensely philosophical, and I don’t believe a satisfying conclusion to this debate is possible. Whether atheist or religious, we are probably best suited to design our own moral code. Or maybe it is better to practice morality as envisioned by a wisdom above our own. It is only when we decide that one is superior to the other that morality fails.
I am entitled to make my choice. So are the hecklers in Smith And so are you.