God and Objective Morality
Saturday, July 8, 2017
There is a rather simple, yet nowadays rarely discussed, philosophical argument that can help lead to assent to the existence of God. It has the potential to change the hearts and minds of those who seriously consider it.
The argument, succinctly, is that for an objective moral system to exist, God must exist. For a moral system to be truly objective, moral law must stem from a source external to humanity. Otherwise, all we have is subjective human moral opinion, no matter how it is dressed up. The implications of this are particularly fascinating, especially since the vast majority of nonbelievers live and act as if they believe in an objective moral system, while their own belief system makes this logically impossible.
Musing on such questions played a key role in my own conversion to the Church. Thinking deeply about objective morality forces you to question why you act as you do on a day-to-day basis, and what sort of rationale lies behind your moral choices.
If unbiased logic is employed, the conclusion is clear: without a divine lawgiver moral choices and actions must be subjective and ultimately meaningless. It is terrifying to understand the full implication of the words of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, that “without God everything is permissible.”
Once you reach this point, the only choice left is between God and nihilism. The more intelligent atheists realize this only too well, which is why this point is not often discussed. Instead, the most heinous acts are simply “clearly wrong,” without any need to investigate further why this is so.
Such an unsupported morality is literally nonsense, of course. It makes you think of the maxim attributed to Chesterton, that “when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
To reiterate, the majority of individuals live as if an objective moral system exists, yet without God no such system can exist. C. S. Lewis lucidly outlined in the opening sections of Mere Christianity that people “appeal to some kind of standard of behavior that they expect the other to know about,” when moral disagreement rears its ugly head.
The Tower of Babel by Marten van Vlackenborch, 1595 [Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden]
This is still the case in our own times, yet according to the mores of modern society, there is no one (more specifically, no God) to provide the standard. Logically, if this is the case, then the standard itself must fall.
I have debated this point often with atheist friends, some of whom have attempted to offer alternative “objective” ways in which one can understand morality. A certain interlocutor suggested that utilitarianism could be given as an example of a non-theistic objective moral system.
Utilitarianism, however, is merely a philosophical theory posited by man. For even if every person on earth accepted utilitarianism, no one would be obligated to follow it in the same way that we are obligated to follow the moral law of the Creator of heaven and earth. Utility is as nought compared to Love, as readers of The Catholic Thing will know. There is no subtle difference here; the distance between these ideas is quite great – and obvious.
Another friend suggested that we only act as we do because of biology, and argued that we can extract objective moral truths from pondering our biological makeup and surroundings. This would be a world where we only act out of self-interest, where self-sacrifice is a lie, and where love is merely a “chemical reaction in the brain.”
Any way you try to turn it, this argument is simply incomprehensible. For if God does not exist, then who is to say whether it is right or wrong to follow specific biological urgings? Take the horrific act of rape, for example. If you follow a moral system based on mere Darwinian biology, where the goal of life is ultimately the propagation of genes, then could not rape be taken as a good as it may ensure a more widespread transmission of said genes?
I am not claiming that my dear friend would ever argue for this, but this is an obvious example of the absurdity of reducing morality to biology. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is a world of difference between the beauty of human sexual love and the famously violent copulation of many species in the animal kingdom.
We can see all around us the disintegration of civilized ethics that has resulted from the confusion over objective morality. And the confusion is only compounded by the well-intentioned people around us who speak as if objective morality exists while rejecting all the things, including the One, that must underpin it.
The veneer of civilized ethics that we still enjoy is due only to the afterglow of a Christian civilization, and without care our inheritance may be completely cast aside. The connection between God and objective morality must be restated firmly, clearly, and often by priests, apologists, philosophers, catechists, et al. In fact, it must be shouted from the rooftops!
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