Much of the debate on the role of religion in our country’s laws contain a cluster of associated ideas. It is enthusiastically asserted by some that if God was dead then everything would be permitted. While it cannot be adequately stated what this sentiment means for everyone who utters it, for some it may very well be an utterance of fear, others an odd argument for the existence of God, etc…, for our purpose here we’ll start with that it appears to be a vocalization of one’s belief in that morality is essentially rule-based. Where there are rules there are rule givers and without God present we would not have any adequate rules, nor likely any rules at all. Contrary to helping us in our moral understanding, a reliance upon a belief in God actually hinders our moral development.
First the question of God, for it is not proven that God exists, and it isn’t possible to prove a negative, that God does not exist, which isn’t a burden for the atheist at all to embark upon. The problem with the statement is the word “if” (as it is used today), which seems to presuppose that God does exist. Another presupposition of the statement is that we do indeed have a sense of morality today. It is therefor framed for the atheist to determine how we could define our current state of 1: God exists, 2: we have morality, without one of its defining characteristics. There are a number of answers to this, two of which we will employ here. First is to rewrite the premises as 1: There is no God, and 2: we have morality. The existence of morality itself is counter to the notion that everything is permitted. In plain terms the atheist says ‘there isn’t a god and we have morality, why bring God up?”
The second concern here is the assumption as to the need for a God. There are a variety of reasons within this, and within this I’ll look at two. The concern here is with the part of the phrase which states everything is permitted. Firstly, it appears to mean that, without any ultimate authority on right and wrong action, then there will be nothing to distinguish the two from each other. Without distinctions then all morality ceases and everything is permitted. Arguments along these lines can be seen in answers from Aquinas and C.S. Lewis in that it through the perfection of God that we finite beings, with imperfect minds, are given insight and direction as to what is the good. The good is one of the attributes of the perfection of God. Without God from where is there a good? Without the good then labels of good and bad become arbitrary, any system is just as good as any other system, and anything is permitted.
Secondly, there is the Hobbesian need for the judging authority to preside. This itself has two aspects to it. It can be thought that the original state of Nature is, as one philosophy professor at PSU has stated, like Danny Devito, short, nasty, and brutish, and for which there is a need to have an ultimate authority to keep everyone in line. Supposing that our morality, without God, is arbitrary in its delineation, then there would be wide disagreements as to what laws are better, higher, more ‘just’ (if justice could exist without God) and we would have chaos. God, being the ultimate authority, would be to that which everything is referred to in arbitration. If God did not exist then we would have to invent God, it is sometimes said.
On this need for God it is problematic on a number of fronts. There is widespread belief in God today which does nothing to lessen the disagreement as to what is right or wrong. For one, there is nothing at all approaching consensus as to what the nature of God is or is not, as exemplified by Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion where the premise there is a God is accepted but which nothing can be known about. This widespread disagreement in application of morality with the supposed existence of a God is problematic. Yet this is answered by the need for the judgement to occur in a supposed afterlife. This belief itself has two functions; first, it is beyond reproach (you cannot not prove the afterlife) and secondly, as such it is useful by the use of fear in controlling the populace (in much the way of Hobbes’ Leviathan with a spiritual twist).
One damaging assertion to those who maintain a need for God in our current morality is that they drop their particular religious affiliation and for them to take up another. For example, for a Christian to instead become Muslim, or vice versus. The similarities between the two are more than than their dissimilarities. The basic actions of a good person are really the same thing. And in both God functions as the ultimate authority, a final judge, and the wicked are punished. The requirements of satisfying reciprocity, an ultimate authority, and a universal are all met. Therefore, everyone in the world ought to convert to Islam (or Christianity, or whatever) and the matter is settled. That this is violently offensive to the sensibilities of many people, that anger and hostile reactions instantly arise, that violence is perpetuated between these similarities is proof enough that these underlying reasons are not truly the reason why one might argue for the position of God as the ultimate judge of morality. What is really meant is that my God is the ultimate judge, and your God is a falsehood, which we see everywhere around us today, the atheist would point out. If the need for a spiritual Leviathan were the true need, then any Leviathan that fulfilled the job requirements would work. This is obviously not the case, so we can drop this argument as sophistry intended to distract us from the real concern, and that is the conformity of others (others meaning ‘those different’ or ‘those outside of a social group) and the lessening of of angst which is derived from the condition of ‘other’.
The counter to this is to reaffirm the point earlier stated that is through our understanding, or rather being influenced by God, that we come to know what is right or wrong. God informs us through revelation of sorts of what is good and bad, right or wrong, just and unjust, and so on. There are disagreements between what God is said to be, which is a poor argument against there being a God. If we all have different answers to the question what is 1 + 1? it would not change the fact there is a correct answer (2). Likewise, because there are different answers as to what God is does not change the fact that there is a correct answer. Understanding this correct answer to what God is will inform us in our morality. Any angst that is felt toward the other is rightfully done so, for the other is one not touched by God, that is not informed with God as moral compass, and to which we can be rightfully distrustful of. Were they to be truly touched by God there would be no other and there would be agreement upon morality.
At this point the matter becomes one as to the proof of God and the nature of such, which sidetracks us from our immediate concern. However, such a question is important in asking of what use is God in morality? The premise that God is that which guides us in our morality, that is that which gives us a sense of what morality is, such as argued by Aquinas, is problematic. It does not prove the existence of God but relies upon such, and if it is given that God exists it is explanatory but not necessarily prescriptive in that it tells us anything about what is the good. Aquinas wrote from a Christian perspective with an emphasis on love and other Christian virtues. Yet what if one were to take his arguments and substitute Hume’s vegetative or generative nature of God, or perhaps a war-like God, such as Thor, into the equation. It is common that at this irrational part of faith that the believer is asked to turn away and to make a blind leap of faith. If we have knowledge of something before hand it cannot be described as blind faith, and if we are in the condition necessary for a blind leap then we are not in a position to truly judge between arbitrary religions. All that is had is the emotionally based proclamtions of the religious follower as to the feelings that they enjoy as they walk with God. It becomes problematic immediately when one considers that there is no shortage of devout followers of nearly every sect, religion, belief, idea, group, or inclination. We suddenly find ourselves back at the earlier problem of the arbitrariness of determining the good that is supposedly guided by God.
God as rule giver is therefor a primary problem in the modern moral discourse. God does not exist (or cannot be proved one way or another). Whether God exists or not is beside the point for there isn’t anything to which it has been shown that can be the ultimate arbitrator in matters of morality. Whether this is God, or a Law of Nature (which such an informed morality might entail the strong eating the weak, a predator/prey relationship), or something else is of no use to us. In all of these systems, God included, everything is permitted precisely because everything that can be imagined can be attributed to an imagined system of ethics. Put in another way, it is like describing the laws of physics in an alternate, hypothetical universe that is different than ours. Without anything real to hang a hat on, without anything to show empirically, there is no basis for anything else to be known and everyone brings their idea of an alternate universe to the table with fervent belief that they know one true way. It rarely occurs to some that there is no such thing as one true way but that there are multiple answers. As the saying goees, theres more than one way to skin a cat, and skinning cats is not as messy as the day-to-day lives of humanity.
What we do know is that we are capable of making choices based on our ability to rationalize. We are capable of being rational agents, some would argue, and as such we ought to approach morality as such. Whether it is Kant’s search for a Categorical Imperative, or Rawl’s position of ignorance, or a host of other methods, we can better begin to approach morality. It might be argued that there is still widespread disagreement and angst. It is as unlikely that a Marxist would adopt the philosophy of Ayn Rand out of a concern for order and common morality as it is a Muslim or Christian to change their stripes and among adherents of Marxism and Capitalism we find the same religious, dogmatic zealots. We would do well to remember that one cannot truly judge a religion by the actions of some of its adherents. If this agreed, then we can look directly at the claims of religion as lacking, and ignore the idiocies of political activists in the merits of an ethical system. However, with religion the ultimate definition of good is unknowable, and with the philosophy we at least have some starting point to work from, human beings in this world using our attributes of rationality and others, such as emotion, self preservation, etc… which can all be ascertained through empirical observation, more than can be said to any supposed characteristics of a supposed deity(s).
Returning to the opening statement, we can apply empirical methods of observation to the world around us. It seems clear that there is a lot of self interest, as well as feelings of altruism, a need for reciprocity, a positive regard for those we admire, and other values and conditions. It also seems unavoidable that everyone lives without contact with anyone else. That is, a person does not live in a vacuum, and the close proximity of which requires some agreed upon rules of conduct, such as ‘take your trash out on wednesday’ and ‘drive on the right side of the road’. There is no necessity for a God for such rules to be devised. Human beings, it seems, are quite capable of devising rules themselves. Concerning other matters of morality, for example the wide spread use of meth and other destructive drugs, is this an issue that needs a God to determine if it is harmful or helpful to a person’s life? What rational person can defend the use of meth as anything but destructive? Concerning murder, thou shall not kill, again is God necessary in this black/white case of morality? Is a person’s answer to why they do not commit murder truly to rely on a fear of an afterlife judgement? Such is the mark of truly poor character, not a good person, but a criminal who has yet to break a crime. What sorts of things would this person commit if given the chance? The answer is of no surprise to anyone who’s left the bright lights of society and had to make their way in the back alleys of life. It is quite possible that a grouping of people, a community, a society, come to the consensus that killing one another is detrimental to their stability (or that in some instances the killing of people is a stabilizing force) and will be dealt with by the force necessary to instill such a respect among its citizenry. This is not a comforting idea to the mind used to believing in a father-figure God. It is realization that the world is dangerous, not fair, and that the good suffer while the bad succeed. Yet this is a vital step to take in the maturing process, a lesson that every child needs to learn, and that we as a society, as a race, needs to learn. It is time we put down our linus blanket and take an honest assessment at or place in the world and the tools we have to live.
God is neither necessary for morality or our understanding of it, and such a concept may even hinder our development and application of morality. It is more profitable to rest our system of morality, our laws, upon empirical evidence and rational thought. The original statement is better suited to read everything is possible, it is up to humans to determine which ones we will permit.