16 December 2010

The nature and origin of morality - Part 3: Can we rule God out?

Now that we have established that christians do not have a monopoly on morality, can we rule God out of morality? In other words, are all appeals to God as the source of morality necessarily invalid? If the answer to that is yes, then there has to be an alternative source for morality, and I will aim to have a brief look at some of the alternative models proposed.

One of the answers that very quickly gets banded about is evolution. The premise goes something like this: patterns of behaviour, which we now interpret as being moral, developed in early society and helped the group to survive. In evolutionary terms, survival is everything. This pattern of behaviour is thus reinforced and an air of virtue surrounds this behaviour.

This is very well reasoned, and may indeed be the methodology by how morality developed. However, it is not without flaws. The first one is that there is no evidence for it. As pointed out in the introduction, the field of evolutionary psychology is based on supposition and peripheral experimentation. We have no way of determining the psychological make-up of our ancestors as it doesn't leave any physical trace for us to examine. All we have to go on are ourselves and ancient writings, where thoughts are recorded. But for anything before the rise of language, we are at impasse where the only honest response can be to say “we don't know,” no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

One point that I have often heard from atheists is that morality pre-dates religion. Now I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with the term religion on part 1 of this series. I don't actually disagree with the point. What I disagree with is the logical fallacy that this is any way invalidates religion, in particular christianity. I have frequently read that christianity was 'invented' around 2,000 years ago and clearly the earth and human civilisation is an awful lot older than that. But this premise completely misses out what christianity is: fulfilled Judaism. The core of the Old Testament is forward-looking, telling of the nature of humanity and the need for salvation, with a host of characters full of just about every combination of vice and virtue you could think of. In Jesus, we have the focal point unto which the entire Old Testament looked, and to whom we now look back upon from a New Testament perspective. So, to simplify the situation somewhat, christianity spotted the Messiah when he came, whereas modern Jews are still waiting. I know that's a very rough view, and I hope you haven't been offended by it. To do the subject full justice would require the writing of several books, which I don't have the time for here. So to say that morality pre-dates christianity (as the latter stands in its current form) is a bit of a tautology; it tells us nothing more interesting than saying my father is older than I am.

So the question really moves to whether morality pre-dates Judaism. Now I will be looking at some aspects of this in more detail in part 4, so I apologise in advance if you are reading this and feel there are some gaping holes; I hope to fill them in later. The best contemporary history we have available to us at present would point to Abraham being the father of Judaism and christianity (as well as Islam, though I haven't time here to explain why I believe Islam to be skewing of truth rather than a continuation of it). So did Abraham invent Judaism? There is no indication that he invented anything. He was chosen by God to have a relationship with God.

Here, we come to the crux of reductionism. By its very nature, it denies existence in the Platonic sense. So the fact that mankind may have developed morals and come, via a process of trial and error, to a relatively common consensus on what is or is not moral, has nothing to say on whether there is such a thing as an objective morality. Here, if not already, I betray myself as not being particularly relativist. I will come back to this point in the next part.

So my point is this: the fact that morality predates religion does not invalidate religion. People were using the laws of physics long before anyone wrote down their equations. If morality were the endpoint of religion, and here I have in mind christianity in particular, then it would be redundant. However, since the heart of the gospel lies some way off to the left, then a morality is a background against which the christian story of human history is played out.

So this shows why one of the reasons given for ‘ruling God out’ is not, in my opinion, logically sound. But I don’t want to leave it there, simply as negating a negative point. I would like to try and be a little more positive in my assertions.

Now here I am a little short of resources as I had hoped to include some quotations from two very good apologists on this subject: C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins, from their respective books, Mere Christianity and The Language of God. Unfortunately, I’ve lent these both out and so don’t have them to hand to flick through. If I remember correctly (and I am aware my memory may fail me slightly) one of the key points that Francis Collins uses, which he borrowed from Lewis, is the Moral Law is evidence for the existence of God. Evidence it may be, but it certainly isn’t proof (for a longer discussion on my views on the difference between evidence and proof, please see this). The argument is a sort of moral teleology. I would highly recommend you read these two books (both of which are quite short) to understand it better than I can summarise in a short space here.

But since the Moral Law as an arrow pointing towards God is not clear-cut proof, the question in the title still remains unanswered. To my mind, the matter comes down to one of consistency. I.e. can a comprehensive system of morals be formed without reference to God? In the previous part of this series, I discussed the possibility of an individual being moral without recourse to God. However, this is quite a different question to that of a common morality upon which all can agree. I'd like to draw an analogy, which will lead onto the next part. It is that of a national constitution. Now here in Britain, the constitution is unwritten; it is a matter more of collective understanding and a knowledge of history and tradition. In the US, it was codified. Now in Britain, if a political development is unconstitutional then it can be seen to be so simply through common sense. But in the US, the written nature has caused no ends of trouble, to the extent that people (who are appointed by the president) have the job of interpreting the written constitution. This has shown that when you have something codified, that it is open to misinterpretation and wilful misunderstanding to suit a political motivation.

Why I introduce this is to point out the dangers of a written law. When you take something that is fundamentally ethereal and reliant on common sense, it is a mistake to try and pin it down. In order for something to be well understood, it need not be well-defined. I know some people won't agree with me there, but is a truth I have discovered from experience of trying to define various things and getting caught up in all sorts of logical knots, when a better way of thinking about things is to 'get the gist.' Of course, this doesn't work for everything and is certainly not an approach I would advocate for anything falling within the scope of naturalism. But we can see it in tax law, where you get loopholes open to tax avoidance, in the controversy over interpretations of the offside rule in football.

So we can now finally tackle the second main objection to having a morality derived from God. That is, that a christian understanding of morality only comes about from an unthinking, cycloptic interpretation of the Bible. Now I could spend a very long time picking apart various straw men that I have heard over the years about how christianity suppresses the individual, or discourages independent thinking, though that's a separate piece in and of itself. For now, it is not unreasonable to dismiss this view as ill-informed and uninformative.

There is good reason for the books of the Bible being written in the various styles as they are. There is a long history of hermeneutics within christianity, far longer than ideas of biblical literalism. There is great mixture of history, apologetics, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, etc. One thing it is not, is a step by step guide of systematic theology. If christianity were a set of moral rules and prohibitions to be obeyed, then a systematic theology may have been the best way forward.

So what is my conclusion? I think it is perfectly possible to develop a consistent morality yourself, without reference to God. However, morality with reference to God is also consistent. So to rule that morality is necessarily atheistic is premature. The pitfalls come when you try and codify morality. The Bible is a great guide to morality, though admittedly mainly through negation. For a christian, to live a moral life is not the end goal. The end goal is to enter a restored relationship with God. It is then from this restored relationship that a love-filled and love-fuelled life follow, and the desire to please God leads to the living of a moral life. Now my atheist friends probably won't agree with me on that, but so be it.

We cannot accurately trace at what stage in human evolution the notion of morality first cropped up, we can only look at the way we are now. The argument that morality starts with God, as something inbuilt into humanity, certainly helps our understanding of why so many aspects of morality would appear to be common throughout humanity. The case is not watertight, but as yet I have not seen either evidence or a line of reasoning that necessitates the ruling God out of discussions on morality. At best, there can be doubts cast on this, for the usual reason of the never-answered (at least satisfactorily and conclusively) question of the existence of God. Though as I have said before, as foundational as this question is, it's not a helpful starting point; no more than trying to deflect any attempts at mathematics before you have adequately defined what a number is.

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