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Is Morality without God an Illusion?

By P. Engelbert Recktenwald

“Is morality without God an illusion?” From atheists, one gets two opposing answers to this question. On the one hand, there are those atheists who boast about exposing actual binding moral values as an illusion, considering them to be a product of evolution, for example. The biologist E. O. Wilson (founder of sociobiology) and the philosopher Michael Ruse write in a joint article: “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Still others consider moral values to be a human invention. “Morality is man-made,” writes the atheist Andreas Müller, who is completely committed to the atheistic “enlightenment.” Ever since Nietzsche it has been a popular method to disempower morality by exposing its genealogy, that is, its historical development and contingency. In this way, moral norms are robbed of their mystique of being actually binding on our conscience. Sigmund Freud did the same in his own way: In the view of depth psychology, the conscience with its dos and don’ts is the super-ego, a product of our upbringing. Common to all of these attempts to destroy morality is the attitude of enlightenment.

But then there are those atheists who indignantly reject the accusation that atheism undermines morality. The attitude of enlightenment is retracted. They fear their own courage. They did not in fact mean it so seriously with the destruction of morality. After all, who wants to be regarded as immoral? They do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of moral destruction. And they are especially afraid of the so-called moral proof of God’s existence. That is the line of reasoning which infers the existence of God from the existence of objective norms and values. By implication, this means: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” This famous statement from the novels of Dostoevsky is one of the most hated sentences on the part of atheists. Hurl it at an atheist and you will make of him a staunch defender of morality! I have witnessed this myself.

William Lane Craig, who has become well-known in America for his public discussions with atheists, has also experienced this. He formulates the moral proof of God’s existence in the form of this logical conclusion: If God does not exist, then no objective moral values and duties exist either (premise I). However, these do in fact exist (premise II). Therefore, God exists.

An atheist who wishes to resist this proof must deny at least one of these two premises. To Craig’s surprise, most atheists chose to deny premise I and to retain premise II. So they held on to the existence of morality and thus nullified the entire work of enlightenment of the atheists à la Nietzsche, Wilson and Freud. A waste of time and effort...

To sum it up: The atheist, in order to remain an atheist, is faced with the choice of either denying the connection between morality and God, or acknowledging this connection, thereby however denying morality. In the latter case, the connection would only be a hypothetical one: If there were in fact objective values and norms, they would only be possible if God existed. The connection is recognized, but it is used to destroy morality: Starting with the denial of God, one concludes that there is no reason to hold on to the existence of values which are independent of human belief. That is the way of the aforementioned deniers of God such as Nietzsche, who derive pleasure from robbing us of our real or supposed certainties. They call this enlightenment. Even moral evidentness, the certainty of not being allowed to commit evil, is not excluded from this.

The other sort of atheists is those who wish to hold on to precisely these certainties. That which the enlightenment atheists boast about, they perceive to be an accusation. How can one dare accuse them of having anything against morality? They want to have nothing to do with the connection between morality and God, employed by the enlightenment atheists in order to destroy the idea of morality. The denial of God is thought to have no consequences for morality. Moral values and norms do exist, but they have nothing to do with God.

Thus the “moral-phobic” enlightenment atheists acknowledge the connection between God and morality and consequently also the moral proof of God’s existence for the case that morality exists. Yet they deny morality. They do not utilize the connection towards proof of God’s existence, but rather towards destruction of morality. They don’t say: From A follows B, but rather: From not-B follows not-A. Both are logically equivalent. Moral proof of God’s existence and atheistic destruction of morality are both based on a commonly acknowledged rule, which maintains the connection between God and morality in the sense that the existence of God be the condition for the possibility of real values.

The ”moral-phile” atheists deny this link in order to retain the idea of morality. But, strangely enough, they do it almost only in those cases when they are confronted by Christians with the accusation of the destruction of morality, but almost never in debate with their enlightenment colleagues. Whereas they are the ones who have foisted the destruction of morality on to them. They should actually reject the described enlightenment project of the Nietzscheans and the sociobiologists with the same indignation with which they reject the accusation of the theists. There are only few who do this. Thomas Nagel is one of the laudable exceptions.

But what are the consequences of atheism for the idea of morality?

For the “moral-phile” atheists, two possibilities emerge: They retain the idea unchanged, or they change it. In the first case, this idea becomes “homeless” in an atheistic universe, in the second case, morality becomes distorted.

Let us first examine the second case. The distortion consists in the identification of morality with an individual or societal calculation of prudence: morality is nothing other than the exercise of a properly understood self-interest. Norbert Hoerster is among the representatives of such an interest-based system of ethics. In his view there are no objectively binding norms which would override subjective interests. We motivate a person to that behavior which we consider to be moral behavior by pointing out to him that this behavior is in his enlightened self-interest. Consequently, Hoerster also rejects the idea of rights, which bind me independently of my interests. Morality is a man-made invention, enforced by man. It is clear that this type of morality no longer has anything to do with the understanding of morality which we presuppose in everyday life, believing, for example, that it is actually evil to abuse a child, regardless of whether or not this runs contrary to my interests. Hoerster constructs a mortuary upon the ruins of destroyed morality, which has nothing in common with the original palace, except its name.

But what happens in an atheistic context when morality is not distorted, but rather when the existence of moral facts, that is, objective values and norms, is retained? Here it is a question of that which is called, in the metaphysical discussion, moral realism. A modern proponent of this school of thought is for instance Julian Nida-Rümelin. He calls his realism an unagitated one. What he means by this: His realism manages without an ontological basis and without metaphysical implications. He does not want to burden his realism with the question of God. This works to a certain extent, because we are able to perceive moral facts without faith in God. But Nida-Rümelin can only sustain this program at the expense of meticulously avoiding the question of the ontological status of those moral facts which he acknowledges. Critics such as Thomas Pogge or Georgious Karageorgoudis have rightly posed to him the question of where the moral facts were at the time of the Big Bang. Was it true even then that it is wrong to kill children? Moral values and norms are indeed alien elements in a naturalistic worldview. If they haven’t existed from the beginning, then they come too late to be and to remain that which they claim to be, namely timelessly valid truths. In a naturalistic worldview, values are inevitably those mysterious qualities, from which John Leslie Mackie created his famous argument against moral realism, that of “queerness.” Mackie, whose most influential work “Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong” has become almost something like the bible of the ethics-sceptics, was, after all, aware of the connection between the idea of values and the idea of God. “It would make a radical difference to our metaphysics if we had to find room for objective values - perhaps something like Plato’s Forms - somewhere in our picture of the world” (p. 24). For him, the idea of objective moral duty is only plausible under the premise of theism. The moral sceptic sees more clearly than the moral realist Nida-Rümelin.

It indeed holds true: only if God, as the fulness and the epitome of all perfection and value, is the origin of the cosmos, which is his creation, do values and norms have their place in the cosmos. But if everything is contingent, being a product of aimless evolution, then there cannot be any timeless moral facts which preexist us and bind us. Then Werner Loh’s statement holds true: “If one holds the view that all components, from elementary particles to human moral orientations, have simply developed, then there is no developmentally-independent moral precept.” If everything which exists is a contingent product of evolution, then morality is as well. And then it ceases to possess timeless validity. Then the door is opened for ideologies which claim that new times call for a new morality, in which former values are no longer in force, in which that which used to be evil is now good.

Either God exists, then the existence of moral facts is plausible, or he does not exist, then these facts mutate into placeless and homeless peculiarities. The hybrid solution of a “sky of values” which hangs over the material cosmos, as is apparently supposed by some values ethicists, or that of a panpsychism, as suggested by Nagel, is justifiably rejected by almost all philosophers as unsatisfactory.

To those who are expert in the field, the contemporary meta-ethical discussion illustrates with ummistakable clarity, how without God, morality becomes an enigma which cannot be solved by the keenest thinkers, without destroying it. The moral proof for the existence of God turns out to be one of the strongest there is, as Craig himself experienced to his own surprise in his debates.

Originally published in German in Die Tagespost, October 2017.

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