Morality Requires God .
.. or Does It?
by Theodore Schick, Jr.
The following article is from
Free Inquiry magazine
, Volume 17, Number 3.
Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000
years ago in the
, the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held
moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian
fundamentalist's social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society's ills - everything
from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies - are the result of a breakdown in morality and
that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many
fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin's
The Origin of Species
in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court's 1963 decision
banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of
moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in God by
promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.
The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists
subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that "If God
is dead, everything is permitted." In other words, if there is no supreme being to lay down
the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Without a divine
lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.
The view that God creates the moral law is often called the "Divine Command Theory of
Ethics." According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be
done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one doesn't
believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one must do
as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious is
that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief in God.
The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken about
what morality requires.
The Arbitrary Lawgiver
To better understand the import of the Divine Command Theory, consider the following
tale. It seems that, when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets containing
the Ten Commandments, his followers asked him what they revealed about how they
should live their lives. Moses told them, "I have some good news and some bad news."
"Give us the good news first," they said.