Some years ago, I wrote an essay in response to some letter or article (I forget which or what) addressing the question of the religious basis of morality. However, I decided at the time not to share my response with anyone (except my family). But, having just now revisited the issues involved, I decided to inflict my essay on Patch readers. So here goes.
Was Dostoevsky right in asserting that "without God, everything is permitted"? Or can God die a quiet Nietzschean death without taking with Him humanity's deeply engraved sense of right and wrong, good and evil? Or to put it more directly, will we continue to forbid immoral behavior even if belief in God has been erased from the human consciousness?
The answer to such questions is, I think, an ambivalent yes and no. Yes insofar as the so-called death of God frees us from the constraints of revealed morality (e.g. prohibitions enshrined in the Ten Commandments) and from any prospect of reward or punishment after death.
No insofar as we find that we are unable to escape the "gravitational field" of a universal morality, a morality (or set of ethical principles) that we can distort and even deny but a morality which, nonetheless, refuses to relinguish its hold on us.
Yes to the extent that we replace faith in God with faith in ourselves and faith in our presumed ability to build a heaven on earth (recall, in this regard, the hideous atheistic utopias of the twentieth century and, more recently, the utopianistic aspirations of the would be architects of a totalistic therapeutic state/society).
No because atheists will probably remain committed to justice, compassion, honesty, integrity and other moral goods (while simultaneously telling us that, in effect, the universe, human life included, is meaningless, accidental and indifferent to us and our aspirations).
Yes because we have already seen -- and will undoubtedly continue to see--institutionalized disrespect for human life, evidence of which (if any is needed) is to be found in practices such as abortion, physician assisted suicide, genetic manipulation and the like.
No because we will undoubtedly remain loyal (but perhaps with decreasing conviction) to the liberal gospel of human dignity and human rights, condemning war, murder, capital punishment, family violence, torture, rape and the like, indicating, of course that even if we reject God, we will, as noted, continue to honor basic moral principles, skewed and politicized as they might become.
In sum, then, even a thoroughly atheistic society will contine to pursue the good simply because, in some sense, it is impossible for any human society to do otherwise. Yet, the good to be pursued might well be a perverted good -- a politically imposed good that is likely to ride roughshod over the rights pf individuals and the rights of any institution (church, family, small communities, etc.) that stand in the way of the aspirations of an ever expanding state.
I am reminded in this regard of a recent remark by an American politician (I forget who) to the effect that institutions have no "rights", that only individuals have "rights". This remark may, of course, be accurate in some sense: at a fundamental level, however, it betrays a deep seated hostility to the mediating institutions which, I maintain, are essential to preservation of the classical liberal order. I would further argue that our current preoccupation with individual rights is somewhat disingenuous, concealing as it does a disregard for the rights of some groups of individuals. Perhaps, then, some of our "rights" talk may be the loud music that we use to cover our troubled conscience -- a conscience which recognizes, but prefers not to admit, that we are preaching a gospel of rights, rights in which we ourselves may be losing faith.
Yet, even if we grant that a godless society will not be -- and at some level cannot be -- a thoroughly immoral or depraved society (although it could be an amoral "de-moralized" society like that portrayed in Huxley's Brave New World) one further, fundamental question remains: can we sustain a truly rooted, objective, perduring moral order in the absence of belief in a good God? Or to put it differently, can any morality that survives the death of God be anything more than a postmodernist's "pretend" morality -- a morality which, although it might preserve many of the principles of the old morality, is ultimately groundless, free floating, a human construct?
Unfortunately, however, such questions are often dismissed as irrelevant, questions having no practical import (so long as we have a moral code does it matter whether it has a solid foundation or not?).Any such response notwithstanding, I would submit, au contraire, that these are highly relevant questions. And, for that matter, very difficult questions. I would point out that most human societies, historically, have thought of their morality as being rooted in some divine, transcendent ordinance (however vague or incoherent their view of the divine might have been). And others have attempted to derive their moral/ethical principles from the "nature of things". One such, so far as know, is Chinese Confucianism. Another, of course, is Aristotle's ethical system -- a system which derives its "oughts" from the "isness" or nature of man as a rational, knowledge seeking and contemplative being.
Regrettably,most modern thinkers have rejected both "natural law" and revealed law, leaving us in a kind of moral never-never land. Thus the popular, widespread rejection of the Aristotelian claim that oughtness can be derived/inferred from isness. And the rejection of the religious claim that God has revealed eternal, objective and universal moral precepts which are to be honored and obeyed by all human beings.
This means, obviously, that we are left with no theory of ethics other than a fideistic morality (it's right or wrong because and only because God wills it so) on one hand and a secularized, relativistic and ultimately groundless morality on the other. Thus the argument that opposition to abortion [and same sex marriage] is religiously inspired and, as such, can make no claims on non-religious secularists. And,as I have suggested, these views do have practical, real world implications: our views regarding the roots of our morality do make a difference, a big difference. For a groundless, pretend type of morality is, if nothing else, a highly fluid, flexible morality -- a morality which , without any restraining sense of objectivity, denies that acts can be intrinsically right or wrong, good or evil.
Nor, in my view, can a pretend morality persist over time. Like a radioactive element, it will decay, seeking some new stasis, perhaps a "new" morality (or anti-morality) something "beyond good and evil," animated by a Nietzschean will to power. Or, more hopefully, some reconstructed version of classical natural law morality. For as several contemporary ethicists have stated, we must ultimately choose between the Way of Nietzsche or the Way of Aristotle. And be prepared to live with the practical consequences of our choice, whichever of the two it might be.