Finding a God-Less Morality. (Humanism 101)

By Patrick, Jeremy | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Finding a God-Less Morality. (Humanism 101)


Patrick, Jeremy, The Humanist


"All great truths begin as blasphemies."--George Bernard Shaw

When certain people become distraught by such things as a terrorist act, rising HIV rates, or an increase in teen pregnancy, they often proclaim it's because we have drifted away from God.

The idea, in its most basic form, is that a belief in God is essential to "morality." With a little work, one can find that both theologians and states-people historically favored this view. Even many of the so-called founding fathers, largely deists, took this position. For example, in his farewell address as president, George Washington stated that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

The idea that a belief in God is essential to morality is a provocative one because it can erase the need for a dialogue on whether God actually exists. Advocates of this position can argue that whether or not he exists, people should believe in God for the benefit of society. In its crassest form, this is purely a utilitarian appeal. Without morality, the argument goes, there will be no sanction against evil, and therefore people will be unhappy because crime will run rampant.

Of course, if the mechanism of religion's promotion of morality is through fear (of hell) and reward (of heaven), there is no reason a secular society cannot provide equally powerful inducements for "good" behavior. Although perhaps not as grandiose as eternal punishment, life in prison, death, or torture are all powerful ways to induce desired behavior. Similarly, many people would gladly act for earthly wealth and power who could never be swayed by promises of a future paradise in the sky.

There are, however, more serious arguments from God to morality that merit our consideration.

In his Herculean attempt to provide a purely rational morality that was categorically and universally binding on all people, Immanuel Kant argued that all actions should be taken in accordance with predetermined maxims and all people should be treated as ends, not as mere means. Although he believed we shouldn't seek happiness for its own sake, he believed that by following the categorical imperatives, we would make ourselves worthy of happiness.

Ironically, although he believed that there were no rational reasons for believing in God, Kant argued that a belief in him was necessary for morality. He believed that a god must exist who rewards virtue in a future state

 
   for otherwise all the subjectively necessary duties which I am under 
   obligation as a rational being to perform lose their objective reality. Why 
   should I make myself worthy of happiness by means of moral conduct if there 
   exists no Being who can secure me this happiness? 

The problem with Kant's view is quite clear: he is treating a belief in God itself as a mere means to an end, thereby violating his own most sacred principle. He is unconcerned with the truth of whether or not such a being exists and is instead using the idea to further a consequentialist agenda. …

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