On the popular online site Prager University, the conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager recently posted the video “If there is no God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.”
Nearly two million people have heard his argument that without God, anything goes.
I’ve known Dennis for many years and have been a guest on his show a number of times. He’s a smart guy, and we agree on many issues, but on this one I think he is wrong.
Prager’s belief that without God there can be no objective morality is, in fact, a common one many people hold. It’s wrong for 4 reasons.
1. Divine Command Theory is Fallible
The argument that our morals come from God is what philosophers and theologians call Divine Command Theory, well captured by the popular bumper sticker:
God said it. I believe it. That settles it.
This argument was refuted 2500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato, when he asked, in so many words:
“Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God?”
For example, if murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if He said it was okay? Would that make murder right? Of course not!
If God commanded murder wrong for good reasons, what are those reasons and why can’t we base our proscription against murder on those reasons alone and skip the divine middleman?
In other words, if murder is really wrong in the moral universe, then it doesn’t matter what God thinks, or if there’s a god or not, it’s still wrong.
2. The Either-Or Fallacy
We are being told that we have to choose between a God-based Absolute Morality where there are clear distinctions between right and wrong, and a Godless Relative Morality where right and wrong are just opinions.
This is what philosophers call the Either-Or Fallacy, or the Fallacy of False Alternatives. It’s a classic debate tactic in which you argue that if my opponent’s position is wrong, then my position is right. It’s called a fallacy because (1) you have to actually prove your own position, not just disprove the other person’s opinion, and (2) there may be third choice.
In fact, between Absolute Morality and Relative Morality is what I call Provisional Morality, or moral values that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.
All societies throughout history and around the world today, for example, have sanctions against murder. Why? Because if there were no proscription against murder no social group could survive, much less flourish. All social order would break down. We can’t have people running around killing each other willy nilly.
That said, there are exceptions to the rule that murder is wrong, even here in the Judeo-Christian west. Murder in self-defense is an example for individuals. Capital Punishment murder is an example for states. Just War murder is an example for nations.
But the fact that there are exceptions to the sanction against murder does not gainsay the provisional moral truth that murder is wrong.
3. The Religious Source of Morality is Unreliable
Divine Command Theory implies that people get their morality from God. But how? Most people don’t see burning bushes, hear the voice of God, or receive chiseled stone tablets from the almighty. So where do these ideas about right and wrong come from?
Most religious people say that they get their morality from their Holy Book. The problem with this is that God apparently dictated different moral commands for different religions, so which one is right? Each makes absolute moral truth claims that contradict one another. They can’t all be right.
Even within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is much disagreement about right and wrong. Members of these religions still commit violence in the name of God today—because religion has no method by which to determine right from wrong. It’s religion that gives us moral opinions, but science actually has a systematic method for determining truth claims.
Which brings me to my fourth and final point…
4. Absolute Morality Corrupts Absolutely
The belief in Absolute Morality inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations.
Historically this Absolutism led to crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, religious wars, and genocides—all in the name of God. Today, it’s why suicide bombers shout out Allahu Akbar—God is Great.
These Islamic terrorists also believe in Absolute God-Given Moral Values of Right and Wrong, and they act accordingly.
What about Hitler, Stalin and Mao? Aren’t they examples of what atheism and Godless Moral Relativism leads to, as Prager says? No.
First, Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Catholic. And Stalin was Orthodox.
But all this is irrelevant because they killed in the name of ideology, not atheism, which isn’t even a belief system.
In fact, National Socialism and Communism were faux religions in those societies, and as such they provided their believers with Absolute Moral Values about Right and Wrong. And they serve as examples of why Absolute Morality Corrupts Absolutely.
Morality is not absolute. But neither is it relative. Where does it come from?
We get our morality from our parents, peers, mentors, teachers, books, and culture, and we listen to that still small voice within—our moral conscience. Morality is in our nature. We are moral beings, with real moral emotions that we can reason about, which we have doing for centuries.
Ever since the Enlightenment, religious-based theocracies have been replaced with Constitution-based democracies, and the result was the abolition of slavery and torture, the democratic rule of law, the decline of violence, and the granting of civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights, as our moral sphere has expanded ever larger.
As I documented in my book The Moral Arc, there is a real moral universe with real moral values about right and wrong, and there is an arc to that moral universe that really does bend towards truth, justice, and freedom. It’s up to us to make that happen.