Please Comment: Absolutes

Mini-bio, to better frame my question:

I am a conservative (some would say hard-right, others would say RINO, but I use Larry Elder’s term, “republitarian” for self-identification) atheist ex-Christian with a deep and abiding respect and affection for otherwise philosophically like-minded Christians and Jews.

(Yes, many atheists are as evangelical in their non-belief as those they denigrate for their faith. I am not one of those, far from it–the attitude makes no sense to me, morally or logically.)

I understand the faith-based underpinnings of the republican gift we have been given.

Having said that, Dennis Prager and Mark Levin and many others have made, and made again, the argument that (I paraphrase): The absence of faith creates a vacuum in which morality cannot exist.

This is a question, a rare one, about which I have no opinion, let alone conviction, so much as intimations based on…what I’ve learned, read and observed.

Why is a belief in God a necessary prerequisite for having a rational moral sense? Or is it?

Please discuss. Please comment. (Scripture is fine but I’ll delete evangelical manifestos. And faith-bashing, as well. Those things are not why I am asking the question.)

Thank you in advance for your feedback! 🙂


20 Responses to Please Comment: Absolutes

  1. JoceCavanaugh says:

    I’m pretty convinced by the need for binaries like dark/light, good/evil, etc., to explain morality. Personally I have never heard a coherent argument for how these can exist without an absolute Source of some sort. To me, the Judeo-Christian God is clearly that source. Still, I know a lot of intelligent people who see that quite differently, and I’m not the type to engage in a flame war over it!

    • songwroter says:

      Thanks! I’m hoping I framed it in the same way that I think about the question (quite a bit, actually), which is, OK, this is an interesting conundrum–let’s get more information…. 🙂

  2. Kim asaro says:

    I think that, what frames the question for Christians is the belief that we are born in sin. Therefore, you can be as moral and good as you can, but never reach the mark. So yes, I think that you are capable of morality… And if you aren’t Christian then the basis of sin from birth is invalid… At least to a non-believer. Of course, as a Christian, I think that humans ALL fall short of the Glory of God. That’s the beauty of Grace.

  3. I think Pragers position is more that philosophically you can’t have a rational justification for morality without faith, not that you can’t be a moral person without faith. He’s very insistent that it’s not the latter.

    I’d say it’s hard not to be a relativist without an external anchor of morality. This explains a lot if the errors of the left. From Peter Singer arguing a boy is not essentially better than a cockroach to the belief that all cultures and religions are the same.

    At least in Catholic thought, its argued that you can have an understanding of “natural virtue” apart from revelation. This is based on St. Thomas, who unceremoniously jacked it from Aristotle. They (except for the Stagirite) would then argue that while these might be sufficient in some sense, the person could not be wholly virtuous without revelation, and the virtues that come from knowing the Word of God.

    Although I’m an evangelical, I’d tend to agree with that. There’s plenty to discuss here – compare the worldview of Aristotle and other preModerns to the common American’s worldview and I think it’d be hard to credit anything else apart from our common tradition steeped in the Christian faith for the percieved evolution (ironically).

    Who cares!? Gas prices are insane!!

    • songwroter says:

      “This is based on St. Thomas, who unceremoniously jacked it from Aristotle”

      Soopermexican and I need to go bowling some time..

    • songwroter says:

      Good clarification (rational justification versus whether one can be moral without faith). I guess what I jumped ahead to in my own mind was the related idea that morality without faith comparatively rare (my formulation, not necessarily Prager’s) for the reasons you outline in your second paragraph.

  4. jgp129 says:

    I think the disconnect btw you and someone like Prager and Levin is that you may be equating “faith” with “belief in a deity.”

    What I SUSPECT they mean, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of their work, is that you can;t have a true “moral” system unless you have sopme appreciation of an objective truth and a higher power than yourself.

    The Platonic theory of Forms, for example, or Aristotelian notions of Truth, the Enlightment worship of pure reason — they posit the existence of an objective good independent of human judgement without the necessary existence of a single, supernatural entity who is responsible for the nature of things due to his connscious willing of them into being.

    And so to THAT extent, I’d say your talk show hosts are right: to be a genuine moral system, you need a belief that there’s some independent yardstick against which your actions can be judged good or bad.

    That, I suspect, is what they mean by “faith.”

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  6. Roy Cannon says:

    The experience of conscience will change your entire perspective on good and evil and provide a basis for the acceptance of the existence of a Higher Power that will not require faith.

    In Esoteric Christianity a person is expected to take nothing on faith, but to verify everything.

    Ouspensky’s book, In Search of the Miraculous, recounts his study of self-remembering under Gurdjieff who brought Esoteric Christianity to the West.

    Conscience is the experience of one’s own feelings, one’s intentions, underneath all the rhetoric, all the rationalization, from an objective perspective.

    In alchemy, this is the first step as you seek to find a center of the psyche outside of the ego as a cure for your leaden consciousness, one that transmits light badly.

    More later if there is any interest.

  7. pcam says:

    While I don’t think that belief in God is necessary for an individual to have rational morality I do believe that an overarching belief in God is necessary for a society or culture to have the same. With that said, I believe that an individual who is a non-believer is either knowingly & unknowingly influenced by believers or is ignorant of the ways in which God communicates with him if he is in an environment where he has little or no contact with believers.

    An individual who does not believe who lives in a society or culture that has a foundational belief in God, lets use the USA as an example, will learn rational morality by osmosis. He will be influenced by the belief of the Founders as well as all the generations since.

    He learns that there is a Rule of Law. There is such a thing as Personal Property and that the Owner of that property has Rights; Rights that even extend to his or her thoughts. He’ll learn that the society as a whole will act with violence if necessary to protect the rights of even a single member who is being harmed or threatened with harm. And that same society will spend precious resources and individuals will give up the very essence of their lives (time) and risk their own lives to look for a single victim of a tragedy or even someone who acted foolishly by venturing into the wilderness alone and unprepared.

    On the other hand there are societies and cultures where none of those things exist. Societies where human life is not valued, where there is no rule of law, no property rights or even if those things are rumored to exist they are routinely violated, sometimes by the very people who are supposed to uphold and enforce them.

    So where does the individual in that culture or society learn rational morality? From the negative examples? From the still, small voice within him or her that cries out ever louder that something is wrong, unjust? I submit it is the latter much more than the former. While that individual in the lawless society may not recognize the voice I believe that is the voice of God.

    I further submit that the grinding pressure of a lawless society is much more likely to create a lawless individual who learns to ignore that voice than the single morally rational individual is likely to turn a lawless society toward rational morality.

    So, ultimately I think that there must be a belief in God for rational morality, for the individual or the state.

    I knew I couldn’t do that in 140 on Twitter.

  8. flicka47 says:

    Well, to start, I’m going to have to agree with Soopermexican and Prager, ” you can’t have a rational justification for morality without faith”

    Maybe it’s because while I was brought up Brethern, my mom is Jewish. So I want, need a rational justification for everything. Believe it or not, that tells me there is no way morality can be based on man, as man is given Free Will to choose(and you thought I was going to say man is not rational). You never have to pick the moral way, you have the free will to do as you please. But without an outside source that has set down “rules” of good and evil, man will always pick the easiest, most convenient way to get what he(or she) wants. With those “rules” you have a never-changing guidepost upon which to base those actions.

    No, you would not necessarily need to be a Christian or a Jew to follow that guidepost, but without the you have no basis outside your own wants to base your morality on. Otherwise you are free to tell yourself anything is moral,and you will. Because we all want, want, want. No matter what we have it is human nature to want more.

    So, who or what says the guidepost has to be God? Well, it has to be bigger, and more moral,or maybe more steadfast than man. Can the Earth or Nature be bigger than man? Yes, but it is not rational, emotional, moral, or a guide to good or evil in itself. It just is. In fact, Nature can be quite brutal. So why can’t or won’t my God control nature? Couldn’t he “prove” his existence by always giving us a gentler Nature? Why didn’t he just give us that utopia the left always seems to dream of? Actually I think you know the answer to that one, man was not meant for utopia. Man will always strive for something more, utopia would be Hell.

    So man is always thinking, striving, wanting; operating under Free Will. I think even God knew he wasn’t meant for the Garden of Eden. My God is a libertarian! But unless God meant man to be amoral, he would have to give us that guidepost so we could have a solid measure of what was good and moral. Or we’d be dreaming up ways to always push the edge.

    The left always wants to claim the founders were not Christian, religious, etc., but were Unitarians, or Diests, or whatever. But, they fail to mention or consider that almost everyone of them was a Mason. The only “rule” for becoming a Mason is to profess a belief in “a Superior Being that rules the Universe for Good”. If you are a Superior Being that rules for Good, you would have to explain what is good and therefore moral. You wouldn’t leave it up to your “subjects” to have to figure it out on their own anymore than you’d leave a 3 year old alone to figure out that eating 4 boxes of cookies was good.;o)

    Can you see that guidepost? Obviously not with the naked eye. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Moses, mountain, tablets… You can read the Bible, but just reading is not always understanding, although it can give the basis for developing your moral stance. Philosophers have debated it since the beginning of time…I think it is something that folks are capable of seeing or feeling, and not just Christians or folks that believe in God. But it is something that believers hearts and minds are naturally tuned to. But I would doubt that God didn’t intend for others to “hear” it too. How else could others know or have the need to seek either Him or his guidepost?

    The Left’s problem is that they think man is perfectable, or can become God themselves. So they neither need God, or His guidepost.So then the lefist tunes out that voice, silent sound, message,whatever it is that believers hear in their hearts, and then Free Will and want kicks in, and lefists “feel” they are on the way to being made god in their own image. So whatever they “feel” has to be morally correct, because they can not be “morally” wrong. Problem is man is not perfectable by his very nature.

    Funny thing is, even in their rejecting God, they still believe in the Devil…

    • songwroter says:

      But that seems like an argument that morality is not so much rational as received (I hope I’m not setting up a false dichotomy so much as detecting a subtle one in your analysis)? I’m oversimplifying, forgive me, but that’s the question I’m left with–and it might even change the question to: is rationality possible without a belief in God?

      I completely agree that man is not perfectible in the sense of becoming perfect, or even close. All have fallen short of the glory of God, whether or not He exists. And I agree with the implication that the road to hell is paved with a delusion that he is perfectible–it is the fatal flaw of utopian visions of all sorts, that the “visionary” creates a hell out of his imagined heaven, inexorably. But for whatever reason–education, God, faith, circumstance and willingness, etc.–he is capable of rationality. And morality is nothing if not rational, notwithstanding nihilists called philosophers asserting otherwise.

      Excellent exposition. Thank you. 🙂

  9. Interesting question!

    My general take is that, yes, one can have morality independent of a particular (or in the absence of any) religious underpinning, but I say that as an agnostic or quasi-believer who has come to a much greater appreciation for the many positive contributions of religion later in life, including its exhortations to goodness and integrity.

    The way I think of it: If (to suppose one possibility for the sake of argument) there is no God, and therefore no one up there to save us from ourselves, then it seems to me we have all the more need for a moral compass of our own, and for the ability to rely on one another to act with integrity and kindness. We also need a code of ethics and system of laws that enable us to identify wrong, seek to prevent it, and see that justice is done when one causes harm to another. Betrayal, abuse, unwarranted violence, theft, etc. are all things I believe one can see as clearly and absolutely wrong from even a wholly secular perspective, while appreciating generosity, heroism, integrity, loyalty, etc. as virtuous. Also: I’ve never really been in love with the idea of people doing right merely because they fear the reproach of an angry God (a motivation which, I fully appreciate, is far from representative of the full scope and nuance of religious teaching on right and wrong, good and evil). I like the idea of doing the right thing and acting with integrity for its own sake, and have always felt moved to strive for that, for reasons I suppose I can’t fully explain — it’s just an intrinsic part of me, an internal rudder. As the wise saying goes: Real Virtue (or Integrity) is doing the right thing when nobody is watching. Or for another variation that could easily segue us into talking republitarian economic and political theory: There is no virtue in a compulsory act. The difference between authentic and pretended virtue has become meaningful and important to me, probably especially as a result of constant inundation by the sanctimonious preachings and hypocrisies of our political betters, and I truly admire the real deal when I see it. That “real deal” of voluntary and authentic virtue is a big part of what makes our magnificent civilization work.

    I’m not sure what to add to that; I’ll have to think on this some more. All the above is said with much appreciation for all the illumination that my religious friends bring to the table. I’m enjoying learning from your perspectives!

  10. songwroter says:

    “There is no virtue in a compulsory act.” Is that yours? Wow. Or, to take issue with the Calvinists, it doesn’t have to be God’s choice (or even require His existence), but ours, as it were.

    Oh this is so much fun I can’t describe it. I imagine my faith-based friends (the majority of my friends) have to assume to even ask the question that I am asking in the spirit I am asking it is itself proof of God moving in my life. And I’m not saying they’re wrong (I’d call myself an agnostic for accuracy but it doesn’t really tell the truth), but I am truly at the place where, while I am sympathetic enough to their argument to constantly muse on it, I just don’t see the necessary pre-existence of God vis. morality. Doesn’t mean it’s not there, I just don’t see it. But I can’t articulate what I do see, and you and the other commenters have pointed me in some great directions, both faith-based and not.

    Y’all rock. Twitter is rotting my brain, but on the other hand, I would have never had these conversations without the fine people I’ve met there.

    Thanks, T! Let me know the source of the quote I first mentioned, because if it’s not a Greek philosopher or Bastiat or something, your name is going on the bumpersticker. 🙂

  11. My friend, if I can manage to distill just one nugget of wisdom that beautiful in my lifetime, I’ll be a very happy man. Alas, I “unceremoniously jacked it”. (LMAO at that — Rock on, Sooper!) I think I first saw the idea attributed to Tibor Machan, who I haven’t read but sounds interesting. See The Virtue of Generosity. This seems like the blurb I originally saw:

    “…virtue requires moral choice rather than coercion. …generosity can only be cultivated in freedom because there is no virtue in a compulsory act.”

    I’ve since seen others, including Dinesh D’Souza echo the same sentiment:

    “Liberty is the essential precondition for achieving virtue… In order to exercise virtue, we need to have the ability to choose freely.”

    So, alas, I’m going to have to wait on getting my own bumpersticker. But given your recent track record with that, the DMV would probably have nixed the idea as potentially offensive anyhow. 😉

  12. IloiloKano says:

    Before contributing my own thoughts, I wanted to read what others have already posted, since there would be no point in restating what others have already adequately covered. Still, there are quite a few thorough (and lengthy) responses, and so I found myself going back to see what the question was again.

    So does the absence of faith create a vacuum in which morality cannot exist? No, not necessarily, if you are restricting “absence of faith” to an individual. But if such restriction is not made, I’d have to go with pcam’s analysis.

    Since there has been some coloring outside the lines drawn by the original question, please forgive me for doing a bit more. I noticed a reference to Calvinists, which brings to mind what is often presented as a contradiction, i.e. the free will of man verses the sovereignty of God. Having become a Christian through ministry of a denomination which emphasizes the free will of man, and later choosing to fellowship with those who emphasize the sovereignty of God, I believe I have formulated an illustration that resolves the two seemingly contradictory concepts. So with your and your reader’s indulgence…

    As a child, when my father was “sovereign” over his household, he regular instructed me to mow the lawn. Occasionally the lawn was not mowed when he came home from work, and he would respond, “When I get home tomorrow, the lawn will be mowed.” The next day the lawn was mowed, since I knew that my father knew what it took to “move” me. And so I mowed the lawn, all the while exercising “my own free will”. So if my imperfect Earthly father could know me so well that he could effectively exercise sovereignty over my life by making such a statement, how much more could an omniscient & omnipotent God bring events into play, such that I choose to act in perfect accordance with his sovereign will? Of course my logic all depends upon one believing that such a being exists. I do, and I have complete confidence he will make himself known to those who diligently seek him. But he will do so when, where and how he sees fit. Perhaps he will choose to use me in some way, though there are many others who can make a much better presentation than I.

    By the way, S. E. Cupp (author of Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity) professes a similar philosophy as you have expressed. She claims atheism, but I believe her philosophy is closer to agnosticism, since she once publicly stated she was “willing to be convinced”.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the various comments.

    • songwroter says:

      > I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the various comments.

      As have I, including yours!

      I’m with Ms Cupp on a willingness to be convinced; the reason I self-identify as an atheist (sometimes I use the term “soft atheist”) has much more to do with an absence of faith than with the sort of (forgive the term) “evangelical” positive atheism I so often hear from many unbelievers. On the one hand the term atheist is a bit misleading for me personally because it infers that sort of aggressive, often hostile self-assurance (it may have been Alan Watts who referred to atheism as the “religion of no religion”) that is far removed from my mere absence of belief.

      Love the mowing metaphor!

      Thank you for the further food for thought.

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