Why Is God So Often Tied to Morality?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Theists are constantly claiming that without a personal, perfect, unchanging God, objective moral values and duties make no sense. I have written on this topic, myself, on numerous occasions. But is it only theists who recognize that God and morality go together? No. There are several prominent atheists thinkers who agree.

In their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, David Baggett and Jerry Walls cite some of these atheist thinkers. First, they quote the philosopher J. L. Mackie, who said, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”

Baggett and Walls comment about Mackie:

His idea was that moral facts, as traditionally conceived, particularly those pertaining to obligation, exhibit features so strange that their appearance in a naturalistic world seems nothing less than miraculous. And unfortunately, miracles do not sit well in a naturalistic world! For this reason, as an atheist, Mackie himself found the notion of their existence altogether dubious.

Baggett and Walls then mention the late German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s

confident proclamation that the “death of God” should have for one of its practical outcomes a Copernican revolution in ethics. According to this view, selfishness and pride, perhaps even ruthlessness rightly understood, should now eclipse traditionally exalted moral virtues like humility, altruism, and compassion. Upholding traditional morality after the death of God wasn’t Nietzsche’s concern. It was rather his agenda to effect his transvaluation of values, in an effort to infuse goodness again with strength and heroism.

Finally, Baggett and Walls quote one of the most famous atheists of the 20th century, Jean Paul Sartre. Here is Sartre in an extended passage:

Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavored to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on the subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligent heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words . . . nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall discover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself.

The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.

To summarize how these three atheist thinkers connect God to morality, Baggett and Walls write:

For these thinkers, atheism didn’t mean business as usual when it came to ethics. It meant fundamental rethinking of what ethics is all about, because they recognized the long history of a perceived connection between God and morality. They thus stand in contrast to those who think that eliminating God from the moral equation changes little or that including God adds nothing of consequence.