What is Morality? The Relationship Between Morality and God

Note: This post takes several of my threads (i.e. What is morality?, What is atheism?, What is theism?, What is religion?, One Moral Will, and the concept of meaning-memes) and shows that they are all deeply inter-related.

This was the final conclusion I was able to draw from my last post on Supernatural Morality:

Theists can rationally justify (though they do not prove) their belief in objective morality via their additional premises (i.e. the existence of an afterlife, with perfect knowledge, and inescapable consequences). Atheists cannot justify their belief in objective morality and are merely being rationally incoherent when they believe in (or act as if there is) objective morality despite all the evidence against it.

Now, of course, this is probably a hollow victory if there is in fact no God. If there is no God, does it really matter that morality is a delusion? This is a thought for a future post. But the question does point out one thing: there is some sort of link or connection between belief in God and belief in Morality. At a minimum, that connection is the rational coherence of morality as stated in the quote above. (Making here some possible allowances for an “atheist” that receive answers to prayers or believe in heaven.)

I now want to explore the relationship between belief in God and belief in Morality further, for there is clearly some sort of link there that few speak enough of.

In general, the argument I have heard that attempts to connect morality and God is the Lawgiver argument that I described in my last post. But, as I pointed out, this argument is problematic because it’s either circular or it’s based on a contradictory set of assumptions, such as God being atomic, identical to goodness, and identical to beauty (rather than being attributes of God) even though beauty and goodness are not identical concepts — all at the same time. But back then I was only considering it as an argument for how Supernatural Morality might exist. I discarded it in favor of an Afterlife-Based approach to imagining an objective (supernatural) reality, which required additional (and unproven) premises, but was not circular nor self-contradictory.

I am now going to use that same approach to connect up God and Morality. Essentially my argument is this:

When we invoke the Lawgiver argument, we confuse the cause and effect. This confusing of the cause and the effect is why the Lawgiver argument is circular.

In some ways, maybe this is good news for Atheists. Atheists seem to have a great deal of sensitivity to the Theistic argument that Atheists have no reason to be moral. In fact, Error Theory demonstrates that this is correct, if what we mean by “reason” is “rational coherency.” But there are non-rational reasons for doing things and those non-rational reasons are often more important than our rational reasons. And, again according to Error Theory, we have very strong non-rational reasons for wanting to give into the delusion that morality is real. Non-rational reasons for wanting to be moral include things like not wanting to feel guilty of having done something immoral (as imposed on us by our biological sense of desert), fear of social rejection or use of violence (as imposed on others by their biological sense of desert), statistical positive long-term outcomes (due to the joint delusion of moral), etc.

So Atheists do not need God to be moral, they just need the delusion of morality itself; which they have every bit as much as a Theist, thanks to our biology.[1] So the Theistic argument that ‘atheists have no reason to be moral’ while technically correct, is not really all that convincing an argument after all. Atheists choose to be moral because they have a biological sense of morality and live in a society of people who also have a biological sense of morality. A moment’s reflection will reveal that so do Theists, and so this is probably the primary reason why Theists choose to be moral too. If Theists had to solely rely on their belief in God to be moral, I suspect no Theists would be moral.

My experience is that Atheists get sensitive when the charge is made that “they have no reason to behave morally.” But their response to it is generally “atheists are moral too!” rather than trying to come up with a way to justify their beliefs in objective morality, which was what the real challenge was.

Why do Humans Believe in God(s)?

So why do human’s believe in God or in gods? I’ve seen various atheistic explanations over the years. Here is one fairly common one from game designer Chris Crawford:

Once language put the natural history [brain] module in touch with other [brain modules, the natural history [brain] module teamed up with the social relationships [brain] module to devise an answer that made some sense: natural phenomena were caused by powerful people: gods. Whenever a phenomenon lacked an obvious cause, it was a simple matter to assign the phenomenon to a god, then explain the apparently erratic behavior to the mood swings of the deity.

This an interesting explanation that actually has some merit. Prior to modern times, the “gods” were immoral beings with no real connection to morality. Their primary explanatory purpose was to explain why the elements behaved in such capricious ways. But what about the modern concept of “God” (wether or not we are talking about the one God or some reality that fulfills the same purpose.) Doesn’t the problem of evil exist precisely because the modern concept of God no longer fulfills this explanatory purpose? Surely the above explanation can only explain the rise and fall of pagan gods, not the more modern religious concept of a morally based Something-Like-God.

But no worries, militant atheist Richard Dawkins has an explanation for the modern God handy (a quote that we’ve seen before if you are following my posts):

The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to the deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. (The Selfish Gene, p. 193)

Dawkins claims a lot here in a single breath. And most of it is hypothetically testable! (More on this in future posts?) A few things to consider here. First, Dawkins seems to be entirely in agreement with me (though he sees it as a negative) that there is a connection between belief in God and the afterlife. This was the main point of my Supernatural Morality post, but interestingly, I actually came to realize this by reading the Bible’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man. (See this post for details.) That is to say, Dawkins — though he downplays it as ultimately a worthy of no further consideration – hasn’t missed the fact that you can’t make sense of a moral reality without invoking Something-Like-God. To Dawkins, “God” exists solely as a delusion meme that happens to have “great psychological appeal.” It is merely a meme (and see extended discussion of that topic)with “high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.” (p. 193)

One other point of interest: Dawkins calls “God” a “superficially plausible answer.” That is to say, Dawkins hasn’t missed the fact that “God” is indeed an explanation about something — specifically about the moral or immoral nature of reality.

Morality as “God”

 Now consider the nature of morality a bit more carefully. When discussing Error Theory we found that morality has the following traits:

  1. It is about ought not want, and therefore requires the existence of an outside moral authority that we believe we are all inescapably subject to.
  2. It posits the existence of a (apparently supernatural) moral equilibrium that must be brought back into balance via punishment and deserts

Does this not seem suspiciously very much like a belief in God? How, if at all, does it differ from a belief in God?

Well, for one thing, it says nothing about an afterlife. But, as we saw in my supernatural morality post, for morality to be logically coherent we do have to posit the existence of an afterlife of some sort. My conclusion then was – if we’re going to start with the assumption that morality is objectively real, as we all biologically must! — that Theists were being more rationally consistent on this point then Atheists.

In fact, I believe we can logically draw the following conclusion:

The Relationship Between God and Morality: If we take the existence of objective morality as a starting (unproven) premise, we can logically derive the existence of an afterlife that produces objective morality. Thus there is a Something-Like-God in existence.

Now I want to be clear here. I am not using this as a proof for the existence of an afterlife or even for Something-Like-God. If that is what you think I just said, you didn’t read the above carefully enough. There is an “if” there that leaves open another possibility: Morality is a collective delusion foisted upon us by our genes.

But I do believe that is what we must choose between if we are going to be rational. We must either accept the existence of an afterlife and Something-Like-God, or we must accept that our biological sense of morality is a useful thing (incredibly useful!), but ultimately a delusion.

So what I am really saying is only that if we are going to treat morality as an authority we are subject to, then we must draw the conclusion that there is an afterlife and Something-Like-God. A failure to assume the existence of an afterlife is a rational failure given the premise of objective morality, for the very reasons already discussed in the supernatural morality post.

Why Do Humans Believe In “God?”

And this, it seems to me, is a logically possible way for a certain sort of theoretical Atheist to argue for why we humans believe in (the modern concept of) God. Why couldn’t it be that the fact that evolution and biology endowed us with a delusional moral sense is also the source of our (on this theory, equally delusional) beliefs in God or Something-Like-God? This is a hypothesis so obvious that it screams out for consideration by any Atheist.

And it’s so straightforward and simple too:

  1. There is no such thing as morality, that’s all just a delusion.
  2. But this delusion was (and still is) helpful to our survival and reproductive fitness, so evolution stumbled upon it by accident.
  3. To make it work, it required that we have a delusion of some sort of outside authority that we are subject to.
  4. This outside authority was eventually worshiped once the modern concept of one moral God (see also here) was developed.
  5. When some cultures decided to personify this delusional authority, it became the basis for the modern view of God.

This is potentially a very strong attack against Theists, though admittedly — since many Theists already accept the faith-based nature of reality — most will probably shrug their shoulders at it and say something like, “but of course morality seems like an outside authority! That’s your heart telling you there is a God!”

Why Atheists Try to Find Over Simplified Explanations for Belief in God

But how does this argument above apply to Atheists, other than as a potential attack on Theism?

Now here is the great mystery of the above argument. I never actually heard this argument invoked by an Atheist before. Despite all my readings on the subject of morality, I had to think the above explanation up on my own. I did not learn this potential attack on Theism through any Atheist I’ve ever met.

Atheists, like Dawkins (and Chris Crawford), seem to not think of such an obvious argument. Why? It’s it such an obvious hypothetical explanation (i.e. a hypothesis) that it should be the very first one we explore! In fact, isn’t it just a natural extension of Crawford’s argument? Previously we explain “gods” via one psychological principle based on the capriciousness of life. Now we can explain God via another psychological principle via the authoritative nature of our joint morality?

Why doesn’t Dawkins just say it: Morality is a delusional meme and the (modern) God meme is just a personification of that natural feeling of authority that we feel about our delusional sense of morality.  

In short, the fact that Dawkins and other atheists do not invoke what seems like the most obvious hypothesis about how to explain away God is itself a phenomenon in want of an explanation.

And here is my hypothesis for why atheists don’t invoke the above hypothesis about morality being God:

Hypothesis about Atheists and Morality: Atheists struggle to invoke a delusional sense of morality as the basis for a delusional God because doing so undermines their atheistic moral meaning-memes as much as Theistic ones.

This is a topic I’ve actually touched on before. Back in my post on the value of being a memoid I talked about how even Richard Dawkins needs a “God” (which is Something-Like-God) in his life to make meaning out of it. Indeed, one of Dawkins’ main purposes in life is to show the world the immoralities of religion (and we know he goes about this in a rather deceptive and immoral way at times) so that he can find meaning in his life by pursuing the higher good. In fact, Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene from where I am taking my quotes is a book specifically about how nature is not moral. Yet, despite this, he manages to still say the following in the first chapter:

Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do. (p. 3)

And he ends the chapter on memes with this line:

We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (p. 201)

I want to stand up and cheer. But I also have no doubt that there is an assumption of the objective reality of morality found within these statements, for Dawkins is stating that we have a moral duty to override our own very natures! Does this not prove just how seriously Dawkins takes the belief in morality as an outside authority that we are all subject to?

What Atheism is Missing: An Attempt to Explain

What is missing from Dawkin’s atheistic arguments? I believe it’s an attempt to explain morality. He just assumes it’s an objectively real authority we’re all subject to. The idea of a delusional reality (as per Error Theory) is never even considered as a possibility.

So we can now derive the following:

The True Definition of (Modern) Religion: Religions are rational explanations (be they true or false) for the (presumed) existence of objective morality as an outside authority we are all subject to.

In summary, religion is what you get when you attempt to take morality so seriously that you decide to come up with an explanation as to how the universe is, in fact, actually moral.

Want a great non-Christian example of this? Go back to my post on Tibetan Buddhism. Here is a quote to reconsider now in a new light:

Your state of mind just before rebirth is influential in determining the character of your next life. You may have accumulated great merit in your life, but if you leave it with a dull mind, you jeopardize the form that your next life will take. On the other hand, even if you committed some regrettable deeds in your lifetime, when the final day comes, if you are prepared and determined to use that occasion to the fullest, your next rebirth will definite be good. Therefore, strive to train the mind to be fresh, alert, and sharp. (How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, p. 130)

Here Tibetan Buddhism is willing to teach an awful sounding doctrine that if you suffer in this life, it was your own fault from this or some previous life. Why would they want to believe in such a seemingly monstrous doctrine?

Yet the answer is so simple: because it preserves a belief in both the objective belief in morality and also the meaning of life. Or, perhaps more specifically, it’s more important toTibetan Buddhists to find meaning in suffering then to believe they are innocent of any wrong doing.

And this is the “missing element” of atheism. Atheism preserves neither an explanation of objective morality nor an explanation of objective meaning. Yes, it does more or less (either consciously or unconsciously) assert that morality really does exist and life really is or can be meaningful. But it offers not one whit of an explanation of how this is possible given our current scientific worldview.

So in my hypothesis above, Religion becomes how human beings try to make rational sense of our innate beliefs in morality and, its sister, meaning. Atheism isn’t a counter explanation to these religious explanations, it’s a non-explanation! It simply doesn’t try to explain morality and then must (delusionally) claim that it did (i.e. atheists come up with bad arguments like the evolutionary vindication of morality) or else hide the fact that it didn’t try to make an explanation (i.e. non-cognitivism or Dawkin’s arguments above).

In a way, I see this as good news. Theists have more in common with Atheists then we have differences. We all walk by faith of one sort of another and our faith is more or less in the same thing: an outside moral authority. So we are all fighting the same battle to affirm morality and the associated meaning it brings into our lives. I find hope in this commonality shared between us.


[1] Some may wonder here if psychopaths have no biological moral sense. Barbara Oakley, author of Evil Genes:Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend makes a convincing case that they do, but that they lack the ability to empathize, so they can’t get their moral sense correctly engaged and it’s too easy to rationalize away the other-centric nature of morality and to see it as applying only to themselves.

6 thoughts on “What is Morality? The Relationship Between Morality and God

  1. “Theists have more in common with Atheists then we have differences. We all walk by faith of one sort of another and our faith is more or less in the same thing: an outside moral authority. So we are all fighting the same battle to affirm morality and the associated meaning it brings into our lives. I find hope in this commonality shared between us.”

    Yes, God creates us all with the desire for moral striving. Atheists believe they are being moral by fighting “traditional religion,” which they think develops all kinds of immoral behavior. The big thing atheists are missing is the understanding that God does have a plan and that if they knew more about that plan they would see the necessity of certain moral rules (which they now see as immoral). But, as you say, in the long run there is a tremendous amount of hope for reconciliation.

  2. Even if there were no God, morality would continue to be a necessity in order that human societies could function at levels that benefit all except criminal elements.

  3. Most atheists do not militate against morality. Atheists benefit from moral societies as much as do believers. Their argument is not against morality but against the ascription of the foundation of morality to a God in whom they do not believe. They look for non-theistic explanations for the presence of morality, such as common sense.

  4. Ronnie,

    Make sure you read the links to the Error Theory posts that go over the lack of success of atheists to find a common sense (or any) explanation of morality.

  5. Geoff,

    I’m pleased you picked up on my message of hope here. There is much symmetry between atheists and theists that goes unnoticed.

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