God and Morality
Continuing my series on morality, we get to the deeper questions of morality that concern God and religion.
This essay gets into the heart of morality – theology. Questions of morality must eventually lead to questions of theology. Much of the moral confusion we experience nowadays is due to the theological confusion that plagues the West. Many people ask: “Why do we need a God to tell us that murder is wrong? Why do we need “organized religion”? And isn’t God immoral for allowing bad things to happen to us?” In this essay, I seek to answer all of these questions and more. In short, God is indispensable to morality because He is indispensable for any adequate explanation of why the world is the way it is.
Morality requires God.
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Many debates between atheists and Christians revolve around the issue of the moral argument for God’s existence. Christians argue that atheists do not have a ground or justification for believing in objective morality. The argument tends to go something like this:
(a) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(b) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(c) Therefore, God exists.
Now, some atheists will concede (a) but argue against (b), asserting moral relativism or some other form of moral non-realism. As I’ve argued in previous essays, this view is not only false but ultimately incoherent. Given how difficult it is to argue for views like moral non-realism, most atheists will resort to a rhetorical attack – something like “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.” This retort, however witty, misses the point. The atheist here mistakes (a) for an epistemic claim when it is an ontological one. Any rational agent can know the natural law by studying human nature. However, without God, natural law would have no explanation for its existence. It would be a law without a lawgiver.
God is the ontological ground for objective morality because it is only through Him that anything can exist. Just as an atheist scientist could discover the proximate ground for the existence of asteroids, stars, and other celestial objects, so too could an atheist ethicist discover the proximate ground for moral duties such as “Thou shalt not kill.” However, to discover the ultimate ground for the existence of celestial objects or objective moral duties or anything at all is to cease being an atheist. Atheism relies on there being no grounding for the existence of these things.
God provides the grounding for objective morality in two ways. First, He infuses goodness into all created things, and second, He gives us a nature that is teleologically pointed toward that goodness. This can be seen in St. Thomas Aquinas’ fourth and fifth ways to God.
Aquinas’ Fourth Way or the Henological argument, goes something like this:
(d) The things of our experience exhibit varying degrees of goodness.
(e) Thus, their goodness is not intrinsic to them but derives from another whose goodness is intrinsic.
(f) Therefore, God exists.
The Fourth Way begins with our observation of varying degrees of goodness in creation. Now, goodness is a real quality, as stated in previous articles. Once you accept that, it’s plain to see that the things of our experience vary in terms of how good they are. A saint is greater than a sinner, a squirrel that gathers nuts for the winter is better than one that doesn’t, a tree that is healthy is better than one that isn’t, and so on. In addition, the degrees of goodness different species obtain differs as well. A good squirrel would be inclined toward survival and reproduction, but a good human obtains even higher goods, such as knowledge of the truth and civilization.
This hierarchy of goodness would not be possible if goodness was intrinsic to the essence of what these things are. Otherwise, all members of a species would be equally and fully good just as all members of a species are equally and fully members of that species. Since their goodness is not intrinsic to what they are, then it must either be a mere part of what they are or come from outside itself. Now, “being good” cannot be a mere part of a thing’s essence because goodness is convertible with being, and it would make no sense to say that the very being – the very thing that makes a thing a thing – is a mere part of its essence. Thus, the goodness of the things of our experience must come from something outside of themselves. This would create a causal chain that cannot be an infinite regress, for a thing’s goodness depends on many other things simultaneously existing. There must be something that exists at that moment that makes things have the level of goodness that they have, and this thing must have goodness intrinsically.
Why is this thing that’s good without limitation God? Because, as stated before, goodness is convertible with being. Something that has goodness intrinsic to it would also have being or existence intrinsic to it and thus would exist necessarily. Such an entity would also be single and simple because unity is also convertible with goodness and being, so this entity would have limitless unity. We’d have a single, necessary cause of all creation that is intrinsically good. If this is not God, then what is?
Aquinas’s Fifth Way or the Teleological Argument goes something like this:
(g) It’s evident from our experience that unintelligent natural causes point to or are directed at some telos or purpose.
(h) Unintelligent natural causes could only exhibit such a telos if they were guided by an intelligence.
(i) Therefore, God exists.
The premise of the first argument follows from the reality of teleology, which I’ve defended before. Even the simple act of two electrons bumping into each other presupposes some end because, without a telos, no action would be more a push than a pull, more assimilation than a dissimilation. Teleology is also the explanation for causal regularity.
That being said, this undoubtedly sounds strange to modern ears. How can things without intelligence have purposes or goals? How can they be said to pursue some end when they don’t even have intentionality? Even intelligent creatures have purposes that they do not choose to have. For example, the purpose of the eye is for seeing, no matter how else one chooses to use it. Furthermore, another problem with teleology is that it seems to entail that a cause could produce an effect before that cause exists. For example, when we say that the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree, it seems to imply that the oak tree that is yet to exist somehow causes the acorn to mature into an oak since the oak is the telos or goal of the acorn.
By contrast, it’s not a mystery how goal-directedness in intelligent causes operates. When a writer such as myself types an essay on the relationship between God and morality, he can do so because the final cause of his action, the essay, exists as an idea in his intellect before it exists in reality. In this way, the idea of the essay serves as the purpose of the writer’s writing even as this action causes the essay to exist. Indeed, that is the only way the essay can do anything before really existing. A cause must exist in some sense to have efficacy. If it doesn’t exist in reality, it must exist as an idea in an intellect.
What then of the various systems of unintelligent natural causes that make up the physical universe? Every one of them is directed toward some purpose, yet almost none of them is associated with any thought, consciousness, or intelligence at all. Given above, these purposes must exist in some intelligent cause that directs them toward their goal, and because teleology is a part of the nature of things, the intelligence in question must be the cause of everything else having the natures that they do. This entails that the intelligence in question is that which causes those essences to exist, and only a cause whose essence is simply “to exist” can accomplish this. In other words, God.
The reason why premise (a) of the moral argument is true is that the existence of objective goodness and teleology can only be explained by way of a divine uncaused cause, and morality would be incoherent regarding these facets of reality.
Before I move on to the other parts of the essay, I want to lay out why exactly the uncaused cause in these arguments is God. To do this, I need to lay out the reasons why Christians and other theists attribute certain traits to God.
One of the first is aseity, the attribute of self-sufficiency and independence. As the arguments above show, God is the first cause, meaning He depends on nothing outside of Himself to exist. This entails that His existence is necessary – that He could not fail to exist because to exist is the very essence of God. These attributes in turn entail divine simplicity, the doctrine that God is a simple or noncomposite entity. God cannot be composed of parts, whether physical or metaphysical, because composites depend on their parts for their existence and require some cause to bring those parts together. Since God is the first cause, He does not depend on anything to exist.
The goodness of God is entailed by the Henological argument above. God, being the first cause of all goodness, has goodness intrinsic to Him. Likewise, God’s omniscience is entailed by the teleological argument. Since He created the world based on the ideas in His mind, He must have an idea of all the natures of all existing creatures. Just as an author knows the world of His story based on his status as its author, so too does the creator know creation based on His status as its creator.
Of course, there are many objections one could raise towards the theistic arguments above. For more detailed presentations of these arguments, check out Edward Feser’s article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” as well as his books Aquinas and Five Proofs for the Existence of God. This article will only focus on one popular objection to theism known as ‘the Euthyphro Dilemma.’ As Edward Feser puts it:
The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?
As Feser and other theists point out, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one. The answer, rather, is that God is goodness itself. This is entailed by earlier arguments and by divine simplicity. Because he’s not composed of parts, each of His attributes describes the entirety of His essence despite not being synonymous with each other. Since God has goodness intrinsic to Him, it’s simple to say that He is just goodness itself. While the goodness of creatures may be distinct from one another, they all exist in God in an undifferentiated way. Furthermore, since all of God’s attributes are identical to His essence, they are identical to each other as well. This entails that God’s will is identical to His goodness. This is how Christians and other classical theists escape the Euthyphro Dilemma – God’s will just is His goodness, meaning what He wills for us is always objectively good. When God commands us to do something, it is always for goodness’ sake.
The moral argument for organized religion
Many atheists, agnostics, and pagans argue that they would not worship God even if He did exist. This position is a childish, immature one that shows either that they are of a corrupt mind or that they aren’t thinking through the logical implications of God’s existence. According to the arguments above, God is the creator of the universe and the source of all goodness and beauty. He is our provider, our patron, our life-giver. To reject God would be like rejecting a loving parent. It’d be the height of ingratitude. Religion, the virtue of giving worship to God, is the most important part of the virtue of justice. If you don’t honor the source of all goodness, what reason have you to honor lesser goods? In this way, right religion is what separates a society based on love of justice and a society based on love of self.
Religions are also useful to morality generally by teaching worshippers to respect the natural law as law. Although any reasonable person can know a natural law, on their own, they often come to know of it incompletely and mixed with error. Furthermore, even if the non-believer were to come to know the whole of the natural law, they’d find it difficult to maintain it. Without religion, the lawlike character of natural law would be inexplicable. A godless morality could only be a list of prudent judgments about how one should live one’s life. When God and religion fix these two problems with atheistic natural law. First, incorporating natural law into religion makes it easier to teach the people a unified set of rules they must obey because God, the supreme lawmaker, told them, rather than having to spend time explaining to them the exact justifications for all the moral laws. Second, God makes natural law truly lawlike, both by emphasizing its creation by a lawmaker and by giving it obligatory force as the product of the universe’s creator.
There is another reason why religion is good for us though. As Saint Thomas proved, only God is worthy enough to be the ultimate purpose for our existence. We cannot be satisfied by wealth, honor, fame, glory, or power, because they are acquired through external causes rather than a pursuit driven by intrinsic principles. Nor can our happiness lie with pleasure, because pleasure is a consequence of realizing a good rather than the realization of a good itself. It can’t be a bodily good, since the body exists for the sake of the immaterial soul. It can’t even be for the sake of the soul because it’s a created thing, and created things exist for the sake of their creator. In the end, our ultimate end is God, for only He is perfect and infinite and can thus satisfy all our desires.
Without God, a yawning, infinite void opens up in our hearts. Our desires run rampant and are insatiable. We consume and consume without ever becoming satisfied. Thus, our purpose is found in worshipping God, the practice of religion. Right religion teaches that God is the source of truth, that His will is the rule of all moral action, and that peace in and with God is true happiness. It directs man in his efforts to attain what is good and preserves him from doubt and error. Religion satisfies the noblest cravings of man’s nature, such as his desire for truth, goodness, and happiness. It is the pursuit of these spiritual goods that raises man above other animals and perfects and completes his nature.
Religion is not only good for individuals but also for society as a whole. As I stated above, God is our creator. As a species, mankind is united by their common origin as creations of God as children who share the same parents are united by that common descent. By teaching these truths, religion fosters a brotherly spirit among our fellow men. In general, religion elevates family life. When religion connects having children to pleasing God, this burden is eased somewhat. You aren’t just reproducing as animals do, you are following God’s will and raising your child to be a complete human person. By contrast, there is little reason for a non-believer to have children, as it’s a task that requires much sacrifice. That’s why where religion decays, family life is discarded. Since human societies need their members to be peaceful among each other and reproduce, this makes religion important.
Religion also secures respect for law and order. God is the author of the natural law, and He is perfect. When human laws ground themselves in this natural law, they participate in the perfection of God. Without grounding in a higher authority, political authorities become nothing but “great robberies” (in the words of St. Augustine). In general, religion is associated with following the natural law. Ethics is so bound up with religious authority that to overthrow the latter would require reinventing the wheel. Most people throughout history do not learn the natural law from reasoning from first principles. Rather, they require some authoritative figure to do so, and many of those figures were naturally religious. Imagine if we had to throw away all our knowledge of the sciences of physics or chemistry, and you’d have a pretty good idea of what would happen if we tried divorcing religion and ethics.
Given that religion is of such great importance to us humans, it’s unsurprising that we organize institutions to assist us in practicing it. Humans are social, hierarchical creatures, so we should organize religions. Even if God hadn’t designated any one religion as the divine faith, we’d still have invented organized religion to worship Him. The only moral duties that are comparable to religion are our ones to nation and family. It’d be strange if there wasn’t some kind of hierarchical structure involved in religious societies given how such structures developed naturally in domestic and political societies. This makes organized religion a no-brainer.
Opponents of organized religion often use arguments that, if consistently applied, would lead to the destruction of all forms of government. For example, they might say that organized religion would allow corrupt priests to lead people astray. However, if corrupt rulers nullified the good of religious authority, then it would also nullify the good of political governments and families. In other words, this argument presupposes an extreme form of anarchism. Such anarchism is incompatible with our social instincts and with the very existence of a creator God who is both the father and king of the whole universe.
God is Supernatural
One of the most popular types of anti-theistic or anti-Christian arguments is what I call a “moral argument” against God. It has many variations – the logical and evidential forms of the problem of evil; the argument from divine hiddenness; the interpretation argument; the argument from the size of the universe; and, my personal “favorite” the problem of Hell. However, it always takes the following form:
(j) If an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect God existed, then He’d do what He’s obligated to do, e.g. destroy all evil, reveal Himself and His Revelation unambiguously to all of mankind, etc.
(k) But that hasn’t happened.
(l) So, such a God doesn’t exist.
Now many Christians will concede that the problem of evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, or at the very least is rhetorically effective. I am not one of them. Any version of the moral argument against God that can be reduced to the above form is a bad argument because premise (j) is unprovable. How can you show that God is obligated to do anything? As stated above, God is the source of all goodness and the lawgiver that writes the natural law. Because He is supernatural, He is not bound by natural law.
Some might push back by saying that, if He is not bound by moral obligations and duties, then God is liable to arbitrary commands and actions, but this does not follow. Even though He is not bound by any higher moral law, God’s actions must consistent with His nature. For example, God is Truth Itself, so He cannot possibly lie. God also cannot do is create something unintelligible because that would contradict His perfect wisdom. God cannot create trees that need water without also creating water nor can He command humans to hate Him. God in His perfect wisdom gave trees and humans the natures that He did, so to fail to create a way for these things to thrive would make His providence incoherent. And, as pointed out earlier in the essay, if God didn’t will the good, then He would not be perfectly good.
God never wills what is evil. Rather, He wills good things that presuppose the existence of certain evils. He only permits evil to occur so that He may draw these greater goods out of it. Just because we cannot see what good He draws from the evils in our world does not mean He does not do so. We have independent reasons to believe that God is morally perfect in such a way that He would always will what is good; omnipotent in such a way that He can bring forth good from evil; and omniscient in such a way that He would foresee how to do so in the most fitting way. Arguments like the ones above depend on the skeptic going “If I had God’s attributes, what would I do? Probably prevent cute deer in the forest from suffering, for one thing…” But this frame is wrong from the start. We as creatures cannot fully comprehend divine providence unless God chooses to reveal that knowledge to us.
The fact of the matter is that skeptics want to treat God like a natural creature like us. But God is the supernatural creator of the natural order, not a mere creature. He does not depend on it at all. Rather, it depends on Him. Treating God as if He were a mere superhuman or even a super-angel is perhaps the most pernicious theological mistake skeptics make.
This leads us to the final point about God and morality – the fact that God is supernatural leaves open the possibility of humans having a supernatural destiny. Because God is omnipotent and not bound by natural laws, He may decide to lift humanity beyond its natural limits without destroying its nature. Even if this destiny has not been revealed to us yet, nothing is stopping Him from revealing some hitherto unseen supernatural destiny in the future. Someone aware of God’s existence cannot dismiss the different religions of the world as being mere human creations. One of them might be the true religion that God wishes for us to practice. We must therefore judge them carefully and pray to Him for His guidance in discerning which is right.
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Just a brief note for now, you mention that where religion decays then family life goes with it. Have you come across Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God? She addresses precisely this relationship between family and faith, that the decline of family equally contributes to the decline of faith; hence a death spiral can easily result.