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Did God Dictate Morals, or Did Morals Evolve?

Custador, one of the bloggers at Unreasonable Faith, thinks he’s solved the problem of morals in a single question:

Are right and moral acts and deeds right and moral because God says that they’re right and moral, or does God say that right and moral deeds are right and moral because they are inherently right and moral? (source)

He believes the answer is hidden option number 3: “Human societal norms are evolved and God has nothing to do with it. Doesn’t that rather neatly solve the problems with options one and two?”

It doesn’t solve anything, because the objection raised is seriously misguided:

Option one (right and moral acts and deeds are right and moral because God says that they’re right and moral) logically leads to the conclusion that God could say that anything is right and moral, including (for example) genocide, child rape, slavery, cruel and unusual punishment… Would anybody ever agree that these things are right and moral? I don’t think so – and yet they’re right there in the Bible – some of them as instructions from God himself. I guess that rules out option one!

God neither commanded child rape (this has been repeatedly demonstrated to be eisegesis) or slavery (laws are in place governing it, but are also in place for murder–are you seriously arguing that because laws exist prescribing penalties for murder that God endorses it?). The protection from cruel and unusual punishment is both a Western ideal and subjective. The problem is really one of nature: nothing uncreated exists apart from God; God created everything. This includes natural laws, i.e. what is inherently good is also under God’s sovereign purview. That means that our own conceptions of goodness, rightness, or morality can’t be used to define or judge God. But that is exactly what Custador is doing in this objection.

Instead, God defines those characteristics by his very nature. Goodness, righteousness, and morality proceed from God’s character and are inviolate characteristics of God’s own nature.  Evil, unrighteousness, and immorality are the darkness that try to cover the light; they are the absence of the good traits present in God.

This means that God wouldn’t command an unrighteous act. What may seem capricious or cruel to us serves a divine purpose we either aren’t privy to, or we refuse to entertain because of the darkness within us. The second option is more likely.

The darkness refuses to yield so we can clearly see that the “genocide” of the Canaanites (and others) was a righteous judgment of a sinful people, pronounced by a holy God. We know well the depths of our own depravity, and quickly realize that if held to a holy and perfect standard, we deserve nothing less than what the Canaanites got.

Common to objections raised by atheists, Custador posits a conception of God on the level of the creature: bound by time, space, and constrained by inviolate laws woven into the fabric of the universe. This is a subpar definition of God, and leaves wide open the question of who wove those laws into the fabric of the universe in the first place. If it was a force or being superior to God, then God isn’t God at all.

If you start with God, and realize that he, as the good, defines all that is good in relation to himself (rather than be defined by our faulty conception of it), then you realize that God wouldn’t order an unrighteous act and all that he commands is good and holy. But that requires stepping out in faith (read: trust, not “belief without evidence”). If you trust that God is as he reveals himself in the Bible, then this leap of faith is easy to make.

All that said, can atheists be moral without God? I’ll explain why I don’t think so tomorrow.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on October 17, 2010, in Apologetics, Bible Thoughts, God, Morality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I see a number of problems here;

    First, Custador is not wrong about some of these horrors being commanded by your god, like killing babies and genocide. You can apply this to whatever context you like and apply your best exegesis, but you’re still left with the notion that killing people is bad by Christian standards (call it murder, call it killing, but it is generally thought not to be a good thing), yet your god has repeatedly commanded it, even on babies and women. The contradiction is glaring, and requires a lot of explanations and waving of arms where there should be easy answers. For example, the 10 commandments (which aren’t really 10, or revised 10, or however you wish to count) should make the moral basics simple, yet the simplicity of it is contradicted by the god who commanded them. Custador is not wrong in this, and it requires a more serious answer than pointing out that slavery and child rape somehow isn’t as clear cut yet omitting all the stuff that are approved horribles.

    Second, two people can have what we all deem as good – even biblical – moral codes and follow them, yet the two can be very different. The bible is full of rules and laws, and within them is the supposed moral guidelines from your god. Should we stone people who work on Saturdays / Sundays? It should be a fairly simple thing, yet no Christian could ever tell me why this rule can be overlooked while others can’t. The context of each “rule” seems to, in lack of a better term, evolve with the religious culture that follows them. If Paul saw what women were doing in churches these days, he’d have a stroke, yet most Christian denominations do not have a problem with women being treated as real people, even with a religious gout and passion, preaching or, you know, not wear a head scarf. Things like that. From the bible you can read several moral codes that contradict each other on various levels of subtleties, so where do we draw the line? What is acceptable drift from your gods will and what is an abomination? These drifts are a point of discussion about the absoluteness of your god’s so-called creation, such that if he created everything including morals and the nature of humankind, then why can we develop different yet good moral codes? (I am assuming already that you’re going to say that there’s only one good moral code, and everybody who doesn’t subscribe to it, whatever it might be, are doing something wrong and under influence of evil. The devil influencing us to create good moral codes that aren’t good in some specific way?)

    “What may seem capricious or cruel to us serves a divine purpose we either aren’t privy to, or we refuse to entertain because of the darkness within us. The second option is more likely.”

    So instead of recognizing evil and call it for what it is, you accept that there’s a thing such as necessary evil, and it is acceptable for this evil to continue because your god hasn’t told you the details of it. Hmm. Only a calvinist with denial of the normative free-will could endorse such a crappy argument. Your god cannot be very powerful or smart if evil is necessary for anything; at least main-stream free-will toutin’ people can blame indeterminism for evil being necessarily ignored by a god that supposedly love them. Some powerful god that is; can’t even seem to be able to communicate clearly some of what is regarded as the most important thing EVAH for people.

    “If you trust that God is as he reveals himself in the Bible, then this leap of faith is easy to make.”

    Yes, it’s easy to see your god as a pretty damn evil entity that somehow requires the murder of babies to exist – to even command it! – instead of giving them or us options.

  2. Perhaps if God is the source of morality you would care to explain why the atheist population in prison in the Unites States is 0.2% versus 15% outside of prison? One of the most reliable statistical indicators of religious faith is: “Have you ever murdered anybody?” If yes, you’re extremely unlikely to be an atheist. You can spin that any way you like, but it’s a fact. The argument I hear from Christians (“If I didn’t believe in God and the Bible I’d go around killing and raping”) just falls totally flat when you look at the evidence. Per head of population, Christians are overwhelmingly more likely to kill, rape, steal, commit adultery and get divorced than atheists are. Again, you can argue it but you’ll be arguing against proven, established FACT – And yet you all think we’re the immoral ones? Well, I’m a staunch atheist. I’m also a nurse in an ER. I have saved more lives than I can count – and I don’t do it because I think God thinks I should, I do it because it’s the right thing to do. So, who’s the more moral? Me, who is good because I want to be good or you, who is good for fear of punishment?

  3. Well, I agree with the above comments, but I also see what you are saying. That God defines what’s good, so we can’t use our own definitions to judge him. Héhé, that’s clever. Perfect way to make scripture work when it just seems broken, as your video said the other day. You do realize that we can make any story work with clever adjustments like that. All I can say then is that I disagree with His definition, I reject some of what God thinks is good (and Jesus seems to have himself, on some points, like murdering women for committing adultery -> and you can say that He is God, so He can decide when to observe His own laws and when not to, but that wasn’t a nice example to be giving if He didn’t want it followed. And anyway, since God recommended such murders in the Old Testament, He definitely seems to have undergone therapy, as some comedians like to say).

    “All that said, can atheists be moral without God? I’ll explain why I don’t think so tomorrow,”

    I guess you’re going to say that when we do follow God’s laws, we are influenced by his spirit unconsciously, and/or that we can’t be “perfectly good” without God, as you’ve said before. I guess we’d have to do the other good things, like spend our lives adoring Him to please Him, putting aside 52 days per year (for that is good, and truly good -> I mean in God’s sense), and disapprove of homosexuality, make our potentially homosexual children feel they are evil (making sure to tell them they will go to Hell, without insisting, as you recommended in a recent post). Then, following such perfectly good recommendations from our Perfect Creator, we would be able to be perfectly good, whether we realized it or not.

  4. “This means that God wouldn’t command an unrighteous act. What may seem capricious or cruel to us serves a divine purpose we either aren’t privy to, or we refuse to entertain because of the darkness within us. The second option is more likely.”

    Héhé…Alex makes a good point…why does God have to go through such horrors that He Himself would consider evil in another context (and in those cases, those things would be evil in God’s sense)? Why can’t He follow a better course of action to fulfill His Divine Plan?

  5. Hehe: “God defines what’s good, so we can’t use our own definitions to judge him”

    To follow up on this a bit, the Christian claim is that we are part of that creation and we are created in his gods image (another phrase that no one seems to know what means). But isn’t the claim of the fall that we now posses knowledge of good and evil? This shouldn’t be hard; the fall gives us the ability to see your gods evil deeds for what they are. No wonder he’s pissed off at us, and no wonder there’s so much denominational quarrels given we known good from evil, and then we read the bible.

    • Wow…I didn’t think of that…that’s true, we’re supposed to have the knowledge of good and evil…excellent! Héhéhé…exactly, He’s pissed at us because we know how evil He is…

  6. I used to think God was evil as well when I didn’t understand the hidden wisdom of the bible. Now come to find out, the only evil present was actually coming from me, my thoughts, understanding, and take on the scripture. The natural mind is not intended to understand the bible, it is like no other book. It appears many times to say one thing, when in totality, it actually means something entirely different. However, the world is blind to spiritual understanding until they come to repentence and are saved. Then they receive their sight, in order to “see” the truth. God most definitely is not evil.

  7. Bible Study: ” It appears many times to say one thing, when in totality, it actually means something entirely different”

    Sorry, but that is the usual cop out; “the vibe of the thing is so good even if bits of it sounds quite evil. You gotta throw away your logic and reason, and get all spiritual on the whole thing to get it. No, no, don’t look at the bad stuff, all that I’m sure there’s a good reason for even though we’re never told, concentrate rather on the good bits.” It’s just another way of saying, in order to interpret this apparent evil as actually good, you have you overlook the specifics of the bible and create a religious framework to explain it away. Exegesis to the rescue!

    Killing babies is bad. Period. And your god has commanded it. Sorry, but there is no serious justification in the world for doing so, actual nor spiritual; take determination where either God conducted this evil act (no human free will, Calvinism, configuration set in motion), or he’s willfully not stopping it (indeterminism, free will of god over human for unspecified reasons; god is not smart enough to create a merciful or ethical option?), or he’s powerless do do anything about it (human free will trumps intervention, specifically *allowing* evil to emerge, what, bad planning?).

    I don’t understand how it can be defended like this. Some god you people worship. 😦

  8. …laws are in place governing [slavery], but are also in place for murder–are you seriously arguing that because laws exist prescribing penalties for murder that God endorses it?

    It’s not the same thing. The Bible has rules for how slavery should be conducted; it doesn’t proscribe punishments for slavery.

    All that said, can atheists be moral without God? I’ll explain why I don’t think so tomorrow.

    Still waiting to hear from you on this one.

    • It’s not the same thing. The Bible has rules for how slavery should be conducted; it doesn’t proscribe punishments for slavery.

      It’s similar enough to warrant a valid comparison. Did you note that in those proscriptions for slavery, that the Bible places slaves under the covenant as equals with the nation of Israel, and that slavery is supposed to be a last resort rather than an ideal, normative condition? Further, as I’ve said ten thousand kajillion times, biblical slavery is not the same as the African Slave Trade. The Bible forbids forcible kidnapping based on race and diminished ability to resist the superior force bearing firearms.

      Biblical slavery was a tad closer to a modern employer-employee relationship, but without the ability to quit if the working conditions become unfavorable.

      Finally, I should know better than to put a specific day on an article. I still have to finish my promised article for Christian Diversity tonight, and if I get done with that one I’ll work on my thesis of atheists not being able to be moral without God. Hint: I’m not going to say that an atheist, to steal a D&D term, will always have a chaotic evil alignment. They may well have a lawful good one! But there’s an important distinction to be made between ethics and morals that few people seem to embrace. That’s going to be the crux of my promised article!

      • Biblical slavery was a tad closer to a modern employer-employee relationship, but without the ability to quit if the working conditions become unfavorable.

        No matter what sort of spin you wish to put on it, Biblical slavery is still slavery. The ownership of another human being. There is no “good slavery” or “moral slavery.” Quit sticking up for your shameful god.

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