I wrote in an earlier post that our moral values pre-date not only religion but human speciation. This may come as a surprise to those whose religious indoctrination has equated atheism with nihilism, but it is nevertheless a fact solidly grounded in evidence from the animal world and, indeed, from human history.
The idea that everything is permitted in a world without god is mythical. Mothers don’t take care of their babies because God instructed them to, and there is no inherent difference between atheist mothering and Christian, Jewish, or Muslim mothering. If we abstain from murder, theft, or adultery, it is not because the Ten Commandments were drilled into us as children; Christians think nothing of making graven images or forgetting the Sabbath (Saturday). Children raised without religious instruction are no more prone to violent crime than others.
If we get our morality from God, then why does our moral sense so often override Biblical teachings, and why do we feel revulsion at the behavior of Yahweh in the Old Testament? How dare we? Do we think our moral sense is superior to God’s?
Louise M. Antony, in a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Good Minus God”), describes two theological theories about the nature of the good. The first, known as “Divine Command Theory” (DCT), claims that what is morally good is constituted by what God commands. In this view, things take on moral value because God prefers them; they have no inherent worth. For example, murder would have no moral valence were it not for God’s commandment not to murder.
The second theory, “Divine Independence Theory” (DIT), says that the goodness of an action is independent of God, and that God prefers such actions because they are already good. In this view, there is a moral order that supersedes God. The theory does not account for its origins, however.
The obvious problem with DCT is that anything that we consider immoral, such as enslavement, rape, and genocide, could be declared moral by God. And in fact, the Old Testament god did command his people to commit these atrocities. We now recognize such behavior as abhorrent and tyrannical, and our moral compass (superior to God’s) points us toward a stance of disobedience. Are we then to “challenge” God, as Job did, only to be slapped back into line? (“Where were you,” God said to Job, “when I created the heavens and earth?”)
DIT is no less problematic, partly because it doesn’t tell us where our moral sense comes from, but also because it demotes God into a being whose moral judgment may at times be seriously flawed—as when he orders enslavement, rape, and genocide.
Antony concludes that “the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs. … You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding him.”