3. If there is No God, then Everything is Permitted

Chapter three in my continuing commentary on the book God or Godless?

This is the moral argument for God’s existence. The resident Christian makes the predictable claim that without an objective grounding all moral values are permissible and implicitly assumes that God is the only possible moral grounding. The atheist—although bemoans this argument is sickeningly common—seems to outright misunderstand the argument.

The atheist claims that because God commands abhorrent things in the Bible then it does not ground our morality. But that is not what the argument claims, it claims that if there is no god then there is no objective grounding for morality and therefore we are unable to say anything is wrong. I might as well paraphrase William Lane Craig in saying ‘if there is no God then rape is just against the moral fashion‘. And the atheist never addresses this.

The atheist does account for what I call ‘moral intuitions’; the things we think are moral and immoral. And this intuition, given that it is largely agreed, really is nothing more than a fashion. The details even change country to country. But, without God, is there any objective morality at all?

The first answer is that it is a red herring. It doesn’t matter, to the question of if God exists, whether objective morality exists. If, indeed, no god does lead to moral relativism then, well, damn. There is no evidence that objective morality exists that in turn needs us to call on God to answer it.

The second answer is that there is a reason to believe that objective morality exists. A serial killer who likes harming and killing people does do what they value, but they impinge on the values of others and that is what we mean by immoral. When Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape the first thing he did was properly define morality. And on a robust definition, there is a right and a wrong to morality.


15 thoughts on “3. If there is No God, then Everything is Permitted”

  1. “If there is No God, then Everything is Permitted”, actually I quite agree with quotation. The argument that you use is about “God’s permission or wills”. I would to use “God’s Law” as per basis. Why? Because I can not control “God’s Wills”.

    I would like to quote Bible “Love your neighbour” as my basis of argument. All religion that I study have a similar quotation, so it easier to use the quotation.

    In secular law, the quotation have being adopted as “society’s right” or “neighbour’s right”. In religion, it quite easy to use the quote “Love your neighbour” as a fundamental in doing something moral.

    Like it or not, human are tend to break and abuse the rules. Example: I put $100k in front of “human” and ask him to kill. Will he do that? I believe there will be someone who willingly obey the instruction even the percentage may be low.

    Some religion, they believe in karma where “what they do will be return to them back” or they just believe in God do not permit them to do it. This is not yet my argument.

    My concern – What is the motivation of Atheist to follow the rules that being “created” by them self or how Atheist respect their own laws, in this idea “secular law”.

    Another concern – If the secular “society’s right” are being abuse in future. May be “Love your neighbour” will be read as “Make love you to your neighbour wife and his daughter”. How the Atheist reform to make sure that the “quote” are being read correctly in a right context.

    To just based on ‘moral intuitions’, is it good enough? I believe “Christian” also have “moral intuitions”, right?

    1. “My concern – What is the motivation of Atheist to follow the rules that being “created” by them self or how Atheist respect their own laws, in this idea “secular law”.”

      The motivation is quite easy to explain: no social creature benefits from anarchy and chaos. Obedience to laws is actually a selfish behaviour. By my doing right i am encouraging a herd mentality which (hopefully) means my passage through the day is free and unhindered.

      If you only act in a right way because you fear punishment from your god then you are not a moral personal, just a frightened individual who lacks empathy.

    2. The “motivation” doesn’t matter to the question; saying religion is a motivation to be good doesn’t rely on an actual at all. It only relies on fear or command.
      For the record, my argument is not about God’s will at all. I am criticising the bad argument the atheist makes in a book I read. I say Sam Harris defines objective morality.
      But Jon does a good job of explaining the motivation.

      1. “Religion motivated by fear and command?

        As Biblical quotation above “Love your neighbor”. Because both of you living in Christian majority. I would like to ask you.

        How many Christian that motivated to attend their sick neighbor or exchange a pie with their neighbor or talk nicely with their neighbor because of “command” or “fear”?

        I was not Christian but I think the answer shall be : None. May be a Christian will agree that “motivated by fear and command” but reality is not.

        So, is it the word “fear and command” have a different meaning compare to what Christian understand,

        1. If you have to be commanded to do it, it’s not moral. (It is even less moral if the fear of Hell or desire for Heaven are why you obey the command.)
          If you don’t have to be commanded to do it, it’s not religion. It is as accessible to the nonreligious (like John and I).

      2. “If you have to be commanded to do it, it’s not moral.” Wow, It was a very complex philosophy for me to digest.

        I try to borrow a meaning of word morality : Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are "good" (or right) and those that are "bad" (or wrong).

        I believe my definition of morality are comparable to the meaning above. Above definition are focus on action and try to separate the intention and decision making.

        Assuming that Christian or myself doing something good behavior such visiting my neighbor because I fear of God. Did this action are not consider as moral action?
        Action : visiting my neighbor

        Intention : Fear of God

        Based on your idea, my action and my intention of fear of God is not considering as moral. What kind of intention that are suppose for to be moral person?

        Your idea make me think. How about doctor who treat a patient because he like job and the salary? How about a teacher teaching a student because headmaster him to do so? or how about an army the following officer’s order to defends a country.

        1. A doctor or teacher or soldier that does the right things because they are commanded are not moral. There orders may be moral, but in “command” is their sole reason, they are not moral.
          For many people “being good” or “nice” or “having manners” (or to safeguard wellbeing) is the reason.

      3. “but in “command” is their sole reason, they are not moral.”

        That why in first place, I do ask you “How many Christian that motivated to attend their sick neighbor or exchange a pie with their neighbor or talk nicely with their neighbor because of “command” or “fear”?”

        You are once a Christian, so you should know better than me that the answer is NO. That is my logic. Why? Human always have doubt. Simple as that.

        1. I accept that and I believe that entirely. But that means we do not need God and religion to be good or for goodness to be real.

        2. I will not say that I do not need God. To be good is not necessary to associate with religion.

          Islam put like this, “A faithful (Mukmin) person must be morally sound in action and speaking, but a moral person not necessary faithful.” So, it not as simple as buy one, free one.

          Then, we may ask another question, if someone put a gun on my head to do something immoral, what should I do? That is another part of sub topics.

          That why in religion (at least in East), moral is about teaching, learning and application. It was a teaching of morality, understanding morality and learn how sustain it. Once you understand the concept of moral and its benefit, why and how, then it was easy for you to sustain it.

        3. I am sure that morality can be taught. It is a feature of “popular religion” (i.e. the bits of religion people like to talk about) that I like. (It is worth mentioning that “popular religion” looks very different from the religious books themselves, most of the time–in The West and Abrahamic religions in particular).
          And needing to be taught morality is not a bad thing. You can assume that everyone knows nothing about morality and them teach them morality. Once they know what morality is, if they choose to be moral so they can make other people comfortable then they are moral. If they choose to be moral because their teacher commands it, then they are not being moral.
          Both you and I seem to be moral for the sake limiting other people’s suffering and making people comfortable and because it is right.

      4. I still prefer that moral define based on action, not understanding or intention. I like to see thing like this, an example:

        A child helping a poor man because his parent ask him to do so. He not understand why he need to help the guy. We, as adult can not say that he doing something not moral because he don’t understand that. We need to encourage him to do so by saying “Good boy”, “You are doing great”, etc.

        Moral is something we need to encourage, develop and sustain. So, it can be limit to certain group, i.e religious group, or moral teacher. It was something everyone need to have and do.

  2. John,

    “no social creature benefits from anarchy and chaos.”
    I disagree with the quotation, my example above have receive $100k for killing… Good example : Warren Buffett make most money during economy chaos.

    “Obedience to laws is actually a selfish behavior”.
    A simple example, if I obey traffic light laws, did I was selfish? No, right? I just respect the law and I understand that follow traffic light will make myself and my community better.

    Obedience to laws is actually respecting the law and understand the law.

    “If you only act in a right way because you fear punishment from your god then you are not a moral personal, just a frightened individual who lacks empathy”

    Actually, why “act in right way” must be related with fear of punishment?
    Simple example, When a Christian a give a bowl of soup to their neighbor as a part courtesy visit or “Love your neighbor”. Did, their hand shacking with fear of punishment? In my rational mind, I don’t think so and I think they visit with smile and do it happily.

    Example: A Christian helping a orphanage because his love to kid or An politician helping orphanage to gain popularity.
    Both action is morally good. Helping orphanage for both politician and Christian is morally good and should be encourage.

    The different is their “intention”. The problem of intention- How do you know the politician is helping orphanage to gain popularity. May be he is sincerely want to help them and contribute to society is a part of his work. You don’t know and you will never know.

    “a frightened individual who lacks empathy”.
    Empathy? If the world is so simple then you may be right…

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