cartoon of puzzled dog

People who don’t believe in God can live good moral lives every bit as well as believers can. Most people accept this. It’s not controversial. Indeed they can live better lives than believers who are only ‘good’ to avoid divine punishment.

The more difficult question is: how to justify it? Can unbelievers explain, rationally and convincingly, why they think they should live moral lives, and which actions are moral, without falling back on some kind of supernatural authority?

This is an edited version of a sermon for 9th August, drawing on Ephesians 4.25 - 5.2.

Different godless moralities

My own position is that I am a traditional believer who thinks we have been created for a purpose and given freedom and a conscience, so that we can recognise the right thing to do but feel tension between self-interest and the common good. To choose the morally right is to follow the maker’s instructions.

From this perspective I find the changing mood of godless morality fascinating. On the one hand unbelievers are right to reject the arbitrary God of Calvin, Barth and biblical fundamentalists, who provides lists of things we must and mustn’t do, in a do-as-I-say bullying manner that offers no rational explanations on the ground that mere human reason is useless. More than that, they are right to despise such a petty autocrat.

On the other hand, if there is no god at all the justification question arises. As the attempted justifications change, godless morality has been filling up. There isn’t a tidy historical sequence, but the overall trend has been in this direction.

Emptying morality out

To begin with the emptiest. Moral philosophers usually attribute to Nietzsche the insight that if there is no god, then neither is there any purpose to life, any moral truth. Our existence is purely the result of atoms obeying the laws of nature for no reason at all. Morally, the world is completely empty. People invent ideas of right and wrong, but that’s pure error.

The 20th century version of this theory is called emotivism. The classic account of it is Charles Stevenson’s Ethics and Language (1944) which analyses moral statements into two parts: a statement of fact and an imperative. This means that all moral statements are just tools of manipulation. If you teach your children that stealing is wrong, it’s just your way of manipulating them. And if you really think you shouldn’t steal, you are being manipulated. Another popular account is John Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977). The title says it all.

This is a morally empty atheism. It says that since there is no god our lives have no purpose, no value, no meaning, no moral obligations. It doesn’t matter what we do because nothing matters at all.

This seems to me a perfectly logical deduction from godlessness, especially if the reason for disbelieving is the common one that there is insufficient evidence for God’s existence; evidence is equally lacking for moral truths and values.

However it is pretty depressing. It is this morally empty world that led Albert Camus in the 1960s to say the only serious philosophical problem is suicide. Since life has no meaning whatsoever, why live?

Godless moral truths

Most people can’t cope with this. Some atheists believe there are moral truths which exist objectively, without any reference to any kind of god. They give godless morality more content.

This kind of morality predates Nietzsche by a long way. Plato thought his forms, including moral ideals, existed independently of the god who created the world. The eighteenth century revolutions in America and France proclaimed the existence of self-evident natural rights. Kant appealed to the sense of moral duty provided by all human minds.

These objective moral truths are supposed to exist somehow, a bit like invisible tablets of stone with rather more than ten commandments written on them.

This more moderate atheism is easier to live with. You don’t have to believe all morality is a trick to manipulate you. You can feel passionately about the things you care about just as much as other people do. You don’t have to believe in God but you can believe there are moral truths, duties or human rights, which we ought to obey.

Unfortunately, although it’s easier to live with, it doesn’t add up. We can see the problem by comparing these moral truths with God. People who believe in God can believe that God has designed the world in such a way that it would be best for us all if we obey the moral rules. If instead all you believe in is these invisible lists of moral rules, just existing somewhere, somehow, why obey them? Why pay any attention to them? Meanwhile we still have absolutely no evidence that they exist at all.

DIY morality

Today, most atheists dispense with objective moral standards altogether. They say there is no God but we create our own morality. People find this much easier to live with. It doesn’t oblige you to believe in anything superhuman; our morality is what we ourselves have created. We say it is wrong to steal because we prefer a society where people don’t steal.

At a popular level this works. It helps people feel they know the difference between right and wrong without believing in God.

Unfortunately it is even more nonsensical. It gets the authority structure the wrong way round. It gives us authority over moral truth, while the whole point of morality is that moral truth has authority over us. If I create the moral rule that it is wrong to steal, and then feel I ought not to steal your car, my feeling is merely the echo of my own voice. When I see how good your car is, and notice where you left the key, all I have to do is change my moral rules.

I don’t want to exaggerate the problem. Were it not for the commitment to atheism, this would be a perfectly normal procedure. First we eat, then years later we learn about nutrition. First we learn that the world goes round the sun, then later we learn that the sun is near the edge of a galaxy and the galaxy is one of many. In the same way, first we learn about right and wrong, then later we ask questions about the meaning of right and wrong. The problem with morality is that we have rejected the traditional explanations that made sense, because over the last few centuries they have been misused, and we are struggling to find an alternative that doesn’t put us back where we started.

Making sense of morality

Realistically, we don’t create our own morality. When we are children we learn moral rules, and when we grow older we question them. Sometimes we change our moral judgements and adopt new ones, but when we do, we don’t do it just for fun. We adopt them because we think they are right.

What this means is that, although many people believe moral standards are our own inventions, in practice they treat their moral beliefs as truths that are more than just human inventions. The way they actually apply them implies that some things are objectively right and wrong, over and above what they or their societies invent.

In that case we need to retrace our steps. The way we actually use our moral concepts implies that we acknowledge transcendent moral authorities, even when we tell ourselves we don’t believe in them. And if there are transcendent moral authorities, we are back to the question of why we should pay any attention to them. The only adequate answer is that they are an integral part of the system designed by the mind that created our lives.

In the end the only accounts of morality that can be rationally justified are the extreme ones. Either there is no god, the whole universe is one big accident happening for no reason at all, nothing is right or wrong and it really doesn’t matter if we all blow ourselves up in a nuclear war tomorrow morning; or we have been made by a divine mind who has designed us for moral living but gives us freedom to mess things up.

If we have been so designed, then the reason for living a moral life is not the rules themselves. The rules are just guidelines which work most of the time. More important is the fact that our lives have been given a purpose. To make the most of life, we can do better than just obey the rules. We can think about the purpose of our lives. We can spend time meditating on who made us, how and why. We can reflect on who we are, who we are responsible for and what we can do, and ask ourselves what, in this situation, our creator might want us to do.

To be a good person, responding to moral truth, will mean something different to each of us, something different every day; but if we care about who made us, and for what purpose, we are more likely to get it right.