Philosophy-time. Srs post, once again, is srs. If you're into theology, arguing for or against it, secular/non-theistic/atheistic/agnostic/naturalist philosophy, the philosophy of morals and ethics, COME ON DOWWWWN.
I'm starting a class with this title that seeks not to determine whether the statement is true or false, but to look at various arguments for and against the statement. The course covers some of the big thinkers on both sides of the question from Western society, dealing with the Judeo-Christian god. It doesn't seem to delve very deeply into any modern atheist/agnostic thinkers on the topic, which confuses me a little, but I understand if it's meant to be more of a broad historical study than a modern exercise in current philosophical thought. I'm sure that's going to be a big portion of the course, though, especially in our discussion sections.
I've thought about this idea off and on, from the non-theist/agnostic/naturalist perspective, for a while. I'm sure a lot of interesting arguments will come up that will set me off thinking. But here's my initial response to the question, and to the arguments I've heard in favor of the statement.
As you might have guessed, I reject this statement. Before anyone jumps and declares that I'm foolish for saying “we can't get morality from a god, so morality can only be derived from a naturalistic basis,” I'm going to right away state that NO, this is not my argument, and I do not agree with it. I know many who do assert this, and I'm sympathetic to their arguments, which I often find slightly more compelling than those supporting the “morality and ethics come from gods” side, but I still reject it.
There is a direct assertion and an implicit assertion in this statement. The first is that the absence of a god allows all actions - which I'm assuming means all actions both “moral” and “immoral” – to be committed with no basis for judging them as right or wrong. In other words, someone can be free to do anything he pleases and can justify it by saying “well, there's no god to tell me what's right and wrong, so I can do whatever I want because nothing IS right or wrong.” I will actually claim that this DIRECT, literal statement, is true, but that it asserts a false dichotomy which renders the statement itself rather null.
The reason why I argue this is because, as far as I see, one can freely argue – from a fallacious OR reasonable standpoint – that he can do anything he wants without moral restrictions or judgment, and this does not only hold true for non-theists. As an evidence-based thinker, I view the actions and thoughts of people as weightier than rhetoric. Because this logical process is variously asserted and practiced by people who don't believe in god AND those who do, it seems true that yes, it is possible to “permit” oneself to do anything whether one believes in a deity or not. Whether this is “right” or “wrong” in itself – whether it's ethical or logical to think and behave this way – is another question entirely.
The more interesting aspect of this statement, to me, is the implicit claim I see in it – the one that the course is actually based upon, and that I believe will come up most often in our readings and discussions. This assertion is that, if one does not believe in a god, it's philosophically (and perhaps practically, though this is an extremist perspective I think) impossible to create a moral or ethical code. This assertion I wholeheartedly reject – once again, probably predictable given my own philosophical orientation. However, the reason for my rejection isn't perhaps self-evident, so I'll elaborate a bit.
I'll restate that I fully acknowledge the fact that, proceeding from a belief in a god or force which determines right and wrong, it is entirely possible to derive an ethical/moral system that restricts followers from performing actions seen as “wrong”. This is at least true in theory, and is very often true in practice; I don't dismiss the many, many goodhearted and virtuous religious people out there, and all the good they do for the world. I didn't derive my own values from the same starting point, but I share some of the right/wrong distinctions that they obtained from religious thought and faith. And the reason we see such variation in how theists behave and think is because there is an almost infinite number of ways to define and apply qualities to a god. See for instance the difference between the Catholic God, the Muslim God, and a vague godly-entity envisioned by those who merely identify as “spiritual”.
My problem with the statement is that it claims it is NECESSARY to believe in a god to have any set of morals. This can be extended to mean any sort of spiritual force, as many argue. It feels trivial to me to even have to say such a thing is false. However, because I DO admit the possibility of deriving decent morals from religion, I wish to qualify my assertion that a god is not necessary for morality. This is where my naturalistic and probabilistic sensibilities come out.
Let us take what I see to be the core moral and ethical tenet from which nearly all other morals can be derived. (I don't have the energy, time, or amount of deep thought necessary to discuss the value-measurements of various morals – as in, is this moral more important than another?) This happens to be my own personal core tenet as well, and is shared by many naturalists and, I believe, humanists: whenever possible, help instead of harm. Sometimes you have to harm, and sometimes you even have to harm to help, but to harm without need is malicious, and to refuse to help through inaction isn't ethical in my mind either. Keep in mind, I'm arguing this from a NATURALIST perspective, so whether or not this follows a rhetorical pattern that logically follows is irrelevant. I base my worldview, ethics, morals and lifestyle entirely on the physical world, what evidence it gives us, how humans truly behave and think. To argue for morals and ethics that give little or no heed to this is, to my mind, perhaps intellectually fun but ultimately practically useless, and a worldview with little or no practical application seems to make “worldview” itself a misnomer.
So how do I account for the religious' ability to come to this same conclusion I and other non-theists have, and how can I still so easily dismiss the above statement as written? It all boils down to this: despite the fact that it's POSSIBLE to derive the “help don't harm” tenet and other benevolent and useful morals and ethics from a theological basis, it is not NECESSARY. The authors of the Bible concluded a whole host of morals which they described primarily through fables, and many of those morals are quite universal and sturdy – things like don't steal, don't murder, care for the young and elderly if you can, etc. Though the text is rife with questionable morals, arguments, and inexcusable contradictions, I will give it credit for these various teachings, and I'll certainly give credit to the many Christians out there who do their best to practice these sorts of basic “love thy neighbor” behaviors which allow us to coexist happily. The same goes for most faiths – at least the big ones – and I won't address extremism here. The example of extremists can be used to argue that the good things religion can bring, such as these morals, are overruled by how very easy it can be to use the very same texts and tenets to justify atrocities. Once again, trying to focus on the statement given and nothing else.
This is actually my argument for naturalism (or materialism, in the proper sense) in a nutshell: if something can be explained or determined WITHOUT the necessity of assuming supernatural forces and intervention, then it's unnecessary to posit them. I rely philosophically on two bases for this: Occam's Razor, the assertion that one should avoid unnecessary assumptions in explaining phenomena; and Bayesian theory, posing that when the evidence given to us statistically determines that one explanation is much more probable than the other, it's fair to act as if the much less probable hypothesis is null. (This is a PRACTICAL application, not philosophical, perhaps.) By the same token, I would say it's unnecessary to suppose a god in explaining perceived miracles which could otherwise be explained by natural causes. Why? Because, as the Razor states, if we can describe this with the least amount of assumptions – it is not necessary to jump to the conclusion that a god blessed a spring if it seems to cure people of their ills, especially if they've also been receiving medical treatment – then we shouldn't bother adding supernatural forces to the equation. And, as far as Bayes goes, it would follow that if the number of people who are truly “cured” isn't statistically significant – that is, if it doesn't exceed the amount that could have recovered by random chance – then it is highly probable that such a “miracle” is nothing but a phenomenon as easy to explain as any other natural occurrence.
As I mentioned at the start of this, there's a whole host of other issues arising from this initial statement, and it can be argued, from the perspective of a moral relativist or nihilist, that even if gods don't exist, it's logically impossible to claim that ANY objective morals can exist. Philosophically, I can follow and respect much of the arguments given, and in relation to many morals, I DO veer towards relativism. However, as an evidence-based naturalist with pragmatic leanings, I think such arguments can be reduced to intellectual exercises, not descriptions of the actual world and human society. In observing how we interact, how we have historically interacted and how human societies have evolved over time (over VAST amounts of time, for the evolutionary psychologists amongst us), we see people producing various ethical and moral codes in many different ways. In functional societies, they tend to boil down roughly to “whenever possible, help instead of harm.” And this can be derived with OR without any certain god, or any god at all. Further, as the statement claims, we can see non-theists in the world around us using the non-existence of a supernatural moral arbitrator as justification for rejecting any moral code and behaving as they please. Yet we ALSO see evidence of this from those who start from a religious perspective – and it is theological pandering to say “well, they just didn't interpret the Bible the right way, they didn't follow God's will correctly” and so forth.
In conclusion: It is possible for “all to be permitted” with OR without a god, so the literal statement is null. It is possible to derive a moral code that produces a functional society without any proposed supernatural entities, despite the fact that religious thinkers are also capable of deriving a similar moral code. As such, the implicit assertion that a god is NECESSARY for a moral/ethical code to exist, or to be determined by men, is false.