Does it really matter where people believe their morality comes from? Is it really necessary to argue with people who agree that murder is wrong but only because God says so? It seems that in many cases atheists don’t need to combat with religious people; if a belief in a creator makes them happy then so what! However, the view that ethics is tied to religion is something that does need to be fought. It is in many ways a malignant thought. In the first place it separates people from humanity, because it instils a belief that people are only worthwhile because they were created by God, and that people are not worthwhile due to their own value. It also means that many people in Britain today (and many more in America) base their treatment of others and their politics on viewpoints no longer relevant to twenty-first century – sexism and homophobia are made eternal and imperial. Bigotry is brought into home life and the public sphere. Also religious ethics is something that is demonstrably false and yet religious fundamentalists teach it as the most obvious thing in the world. By arguing against the view that godless morality is a contradiction in terms we are preventing people falling for the lie that they cannot be moral without God. Flawed theories that lead to bad consequences shouldn’t be ignored.
What I mean in this case by religious ethics is divine command theory. There are no problems with such ideas as ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated’ because these are human values which can be rationally deduced and engender respect and kindness to others. Divine command theory is utterly non-human and irrational. Within the Bible God says that murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, that women are inferior and then at various points that slavery is right or loving kindness of the utmost importance. If your morality comes from what God is alleged to have decreed then fortunately for us all you will be against murder and stealing (we’ll just have to ignore all the Biblical massacres for now), but then unfortunately for women and gays you will believe nasty things about them. Most Christians no longer keep slaves and there were indeed Christians alongside secularists who opposed slavery, however I’m sure it didn’t help that the Bible had no specific qualms with slavery. Modern liberal Christians will realise that murder is wrong and so is stealing and so is slavery and that women aren’t inferior and homosexuals not immoral, because they no longer derive their morality from the Bible (See Godless Morality by Richard Holloway). Indeed their morality imposes itself on the Bible and that is why they choose the relevant parts that emphasise certain universal truths: loving kindness, tolerance and equality.
Divine command theorists are not like this. They get their morality from the Bible and so believe that things are wrong when God says so, and that things are morally good when God says so. Fundamentalist Christians literally believe that there would be nothing wrong with shooting someone if there was no God. The philosophical basis of this type of thinking is so flawed that even Wikipedia skewers it with the words, ‘it is a philosophical truism, encapsulated in Plato's Euthyphro dilemma that the role of the gods in determining right from wrong is either unnecessary or arbitrary’. Wikipedia sums it up and I will explain why. Take for example that God commands that murder is wrong. Why does this make murder wrong? Is it because murder is wrong regardless of God or is it wrong because God says it is wrong? The former position that murder is wrong regardless of God means that there is no need for a God when it comes to morality – that you can come to this conclusion with no need for religion. The latter position that it is wrong because God says it is wrong means that anything that God says is right. For example if God was to say that torturing people for fun is right then it would be so.
This is a difficulty for divine command theorists. Either God is not needed to act ethically or his views are arbritary. Now they might answer that any ethical theory needs to base what is good on something that it is arbitrary – that ethical systems give no other reason for saying what is right. This is an interesting way of doing things, because it basically translates as ‘yes God could have argued that tortuting people is right, but any other ethical system is similiarly arbritary and so I will just choose this one.’ Also divine command theorists are thinking their ethics is cleverer than it is. Take Mill’s argument for utilitarianism: what is desired by people (happiness) is morally desirable. This provides a reason – at least an attempt at ‘the proof of utility’ - that we can accept or deny when it comes to looking at utilitarianism. Unfortunately relgious ethics provides no reasons for believing what God says – this is because it is arbitrary and therefore irrational. It is like saying ‘Mr Bob says that I should eat vegetables and therefore I will’. For this statement to make any sense you would have to say something like ‘Mr Bob is an expert on nutrition and so I will do what he says’. However this seperates Mr Bob from being the source of knowledge of nutrition: he believes that you should eat vegetables because he has learnt that they are good for you. In the same way for it to make any sense that what God says is right we have to separate God from being the source of values.
Now lets look at what this means for sexist and homophobic claims. If God’s wishes are just arbitrary then it would be stupid to believe that women are inferior and homosexuality immoral. If God is attached wholeheartedly to an external moral standard then we too can access it. Moral standards that apply to people are surely accessible to the people themselves – that’s how we know that murder is wrong and so forth. For it to be right that women are inferior and homosexuality immoral then God has to have strong reasons for believing this – if there arent any reasons for agreeing with God then it suggests that certain parts of the bible are imperfectly human. When we assess whether women should be beneath men in terms of power relationships every-day life, common sense and our own morality tells us otherwise. Women are perfectly able in jobs and positions of authority, and this means that what God has been alledged to have said conflicts with what we know. It seems reasonable to suggest that the parts of the bible that claim that homosexuality is immoral and slavery permissible are just vestiges of their time and place.
Take also the example of divorce. According to the Bible this is immoral. Now if God is a passer on of the independent moral truth then the moral truth God is appealling too does not seem to hold any place in reality. In reality if relationships crumble it would be ridiculous to state that the couple should stick together, because a great deal of unhappiness is caused and fresh starts are lost. Morality which applies to humans has to appeal to human values. That is why one of God’s rules: the Golden Rule is so strong, because it makes sense on a human level. Other rules and laws we must discard because they are nonsensical on a human level.
This brings morality firmly back to humanity. People are worthwhile because of their own value and not the value that God puts on them. Morality can only be come to through reasons, evidence, humanity, respect and impartiality. You do not need a God for these.