Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Do you need God to be moral?

posted by Scot McKnight

C.S. Lewis famously argued that morals need God, that one cannot have universal morals without a divine foundation for those morals. That is, apart from belief in God it is hard to maintain belief in morals. The question Lewis provokes for some is this: Are there cultures where folks are both demonstrably moral and irreligious. One of the more interesting books I’ve read of late is Phil Zuckerman’s new book, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment , because Zuckerman argues he’s found just that.

Here’s our question: How do traditional Christians explain places where there is very little religious belief but there is a clear presence of good, respectable morals and civlity?

Zuckerman studies cultures or societies where folks are:

1. Moral.
2. Happy.
3. Irreligious.


AarhusCath.jpgZuckerman studied Denmark (esp) and Sweden.

Here are some facts:

First, Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the entire world — according to happiness studies those Danes are near the top every year. They have great life expectancy, wealth/GDP (8th in world), economic equality, gender equality, health care, education, technology, lack of corruption — very good quality of life.

Second, Denmark is one of the least religious — measured by normal markers like church attendance (9%), Bible reading, prayer, belief in God (only 51%; USA is at 90%), belief in life after death (33%), belief in heaven (18%), etc — countries in the world.

Third, Denmark is noted for its decency, civility, and good behavior — and it is known for the absence of crime, etc..

Danes don’t fear death as many religious cultures do; and neither do they think there is meaning to life as much as many cultures. Their religion is inherent to their culture, they pay taxes to the church, etc., but Denmark is noted by “cultural religion” — a high proportion practice religious rites but do not believe in the supernatural dimensions.

By the way, I’m not sure Zuckerman takes into consideration the hangover of a Christian culture on the present morals of the Danes (and Swedes) and I’m not sure the argument of many isn’t “universal grounding for ethics” require belief in God more than good moral behaviors only flow out of belief in God. But, he’s got a good book and he’s got stuff from Laura Schlesinger, Jerry Falwell, and others that contend that without belief in God a society will become immoral.

I suspect many will suggest that there’s more religion in the Danes and Swedes than they let on and that overt beliefs and practices are not always the only indicator of religious beliefs. But in normal measures, he’s got the facts on his side.

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Dave Leigh

posted March 23, 2009 at 12:53 am

I have many good friends who fit Zuckerman’s study, including an atheist friend who comes from a family of non-religious Jews. I also know ex-Christians who claim to be happier and mentilly healthier now than they were before.
I have to say that I took a regretful journey away from the faith, myself, for a few years after my divorce. At times I was miserable and at times I was quite happy. The latter occurred usually when I was indulging in things I would not done have as a Christian, and so in a way I guess I thought I was getting more and feeling a release in it. When it made me feel happy, I actually remember it also making me feel superior, as if I knew something my old Christian friends and way of life had missed.
But I’m not sure happiness is a good indicator of a worldview’s success. After all, it has long been established that “ignorance is bliss.” People can be happy (and unhappy) for the wrong reasons.
The harder question regards morals and integrity. I agree with Lewis’s idea that morality has no philosophical foundation apart from a divine foundation. But not being able to explain why one is moral does not keep someone from being moral and having moral convictions. Again, I’m guessing we’ve all known many great people like this who do not subscribe to religious or Christian faith but are generous or merciful or just or humble or all of this and more. I have always understood this in terms of common grace and saw in them Paul’s point that there are some who practice God’s moral laws instinctively (e.g., Ro 2:13-15,26-29).
Not everyone feels the need to have a philosophicly- or religiously-defensible moral system. But many will live out of their hearts, consciences, and instincts, revealing what God has written there. The outcome of living in a way that is consistent with what you feel is right and good can apparently be a great source of happiness in anyone’s life.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 12:53 am

It seems to me the relationship between God and morals is one of the most misunderstood arguments in all of theology — by both unbelievers and Christians alike. This has been incredibly frustrating to me for a loooong time.
The point is NOT that one cannot be moral without God or belief in God. Our experience proves that every day. There are atheists who are “better” persons than most Christians; and there are Christians who do some truly terrible things.
The point is that without an objective moral standard (or law giver, or God), one has no basis for defining good and evil, right and wrong. When atheists (Dawkins et al.) spout off about “good” unbelievers or the “evil” done in the name of religion, they often seem to be clueless that they are affirming a belief in objective morals or that such a belief requires God.
To your question, how do Christians explain Zuckerman’s findings, besides the points you have raised how about Rom. 2:14-15. Not only are there objective morals defined by God, he has written those morals in the hearts of all people.

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Jonathan Brink

posted March 23, 2009 at 1:03 am

So Scot, did you answer your own question?

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Mike Clawson

posted March 23, 2009 at 1:05 am

There seems to be a confusion/equivocation going on here. Arguing that God is philosophically necessary for a “universal grounding for ethics” is not at all the same thing as arguing that one needs to personally believe in God in order to behave morally. People can be moral for all kinds of reasons without necessarily having a sound philosophical grounding for their behavior. For most of us, in my experience, there is usually a pretty large gap between what we believe intellectually/philosophically, and the actual personal/psychological reasons why we do what we do. The latter is rarely dependent on the former.
Nor is it obviously the case that one needs a “universal grounding” in order to act morally/ethically either. That seems a rather Kantian assumption to me. I see no reason why personal or socio-cultural grounds would not be sufficient to induce moral behavior in most individuals. I don’t need my reasons for acting ethically to be universally valid, I just need them to be good enough for me personally.

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John D

posted March 23, 2009 at 1:30 am

The impression I have about many European countries is that they have artificially reduced their crime rates by decriminalizing things that are considered illegal in most countries. Also, they’ve allowed and made some things legal that are generally considered immoral in much of the world.
Thus, statistics would show that there are less people in prison, and that crime rates are going down.
In these European countries, the people may seem more tolerant. There is an attitude of ‘live and let live’ of ‘not rocking the boat’. But this attitude stems from the idea that the people don’t want their own boat rocked. Also, the real opposite of caring is indifference. Many people in Europe have become quite indifferent. They really couldn’t give a rip about their neighbor. In the northern European countries, people don’t want to make eye contact. If you look them in the eye and smile at them and say hello, they act like you have a radioactive disease that they need to get away from.
So, no, I don’t agree that everybody is so happy in that part of the world.

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Wayne McDaniel

posted March 23, 2009 at 2:17 am

The title of Zuckerman’s book suggests that contentment is the measure
of man. Scripture portrays something different. “being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.” “for we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” “But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly; wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he has prepared for them a city.”
“The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent: inasmuch as he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in rightousness by the man whom he has ordained; wherof he has given assurance unto all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”
Only the word of the cross implants the hope of glory that transforms men. “But the path of the rightous is as the dawning light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day.”

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Benjamin Ady

posted March 23, 2009 at 3:03 am

One wonders if the Swedes and the Danes are overconsuming at anything like the rate that Americans do, in terms of oil, food, water, etc. etc. If everyone on the planet (all 6.7 billion of us) lived in a similar way to the Swedes and Danes, in terms of consumption, what would the result look like after 50 years?
What about greenhouse gas emission? Where are they at with that? Both in the upper 50% of nations for sure.
Is it moral to have two coats while some shiver?
Is Zuckerman simply saying that these “irreligious” countries are “at least as moral as, or more moral than” religious countries? Sounds like Zuckerman and I might disagree about what is “moral”. To what extent is Denmark, as a member of NATO, party to the fact that as a planet we spent 1.4 Trillion dollars on war machinery in 2007 while at *least* 20,000 kids starved to death every single day that year?
I’d love to hear more about how he defined/talked about measuring “morality/civility”. You mentioned “absence of crime” and “civility”. It sounds like Zuckerman is defining his terms very narrowly.

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Tony Myles

posted March 23, 2009 at 3:22 am

Perhaps the question is “Why shouldn’t they be happy?”
In Christendom we tend to spend a lot of energy trying to use our happiness to others as a selling point… like when Ted Haggard said that Christian marriages have better sex in them.
We don’t have to compare with the atheists on any of this because we don’t have God who is against humanity but for humanity. Meaning, God isn’t trying to only bring life to one group of people but to all people. Granted, He does show favor to His people… but He also allows them to experience tragedy, too.
So perhaps seeing happiness in countries without God is more of a witness than we realize. God is like that flower that grows up in a city sidewalk – He’s not bound to reveal joy in only one way. Just as “turning someone over to Satan for a season” can bring that person to repentance, so can allowing people without God to have goodness that can be tracked back to the Ultimate Gift Giver.
I’m not afraid of someone who doesn’t believe in God being happier than I am… nor should any of us.
Because happiness isn’t the goal… nor is being a moral society.
The goal is finding the Life Giver who radically enjoys giving Life.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 4:13 am

Dear Mr John D, I don? t know which country you are from, maybe one of those “northern American countries”, but it doesn?t matter, you don? t seem to know much about cultural differences of cultural behaviour. Not to make eyecontact in “northern European countries” (there are quite many, you know, and many include the Netherlands, Germany and the UK in “Northern Europe”, so please be specific…) is not a question of unhappiness, but politeness. It is not polite to look a stranger in the eye in for example Sweden. So it is you when you look in the eye and say hello who are impolite, not them. Just like it is impolite to shake hands with a woman in muslim countries, if you are a man, or it is very impolite NOT to do so in the Netherlands.
Has nothing to do with unhappiness.
And Swedish people have high morals, “They really couldn’t give a rip about their neighbor” is quite a rude thing to say.
I am from Sweden and have lived in many parts of the world, Africa, Middleast and in Europe; England and the Netherlands.
One thing I know for sure, I don? t think Swedish people are happier och unhappier than other people, rich or poor, religious or not.
I don? t really have a theory why it is so.
(Cannot answer for the Danish, they are another people, and in some ways different from the Swedish…)
I don? t know how the happiness studies are made, but of course, the Swedish have to worry less about financial security (even though the economical crisis hits hard there too), schooling inkl. university is free, free healthcare etc., but for me happiness is something else.
Money doesn? t make you happy. Health doesn? t always make you happy.
Anyway, Jesus Creed is read all over the world. Thanks for an excellent blog!

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posted March 23, 2009 at 4:24 am

Benjamin Ady,
Swedes and Danes doesn?t consume as much as Americans, at least not oil, because of energy efficient houses, smaller cars, more public transport.
Have no numbers, but keep in mind petrol in Europe cost about 1.30 euro per litre, I think twice as much as USA (not sure, but it is a big difference).
Greenhouse gas emissions are also lower than America.
Funny, the words you use about Swedes and Danes are the same they use about Americans…
But note, I am not saying it cannot be better, more energy saving, lower gas emissions, use of less water, more public transport, more environment friendly…

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Your Name

posted March 23, 2009 at 6:54 am

People develop different morals but the still have morals. Some people don’t consider the Judeo Christian instruction to fill and subdue the earth and have control over every living thing, to be very moral. But I don’t believe we need to have believed in God to have developed morals or learned to distinguish between good and bad or right and wrong or rather invent the difference between them.. To be really simplistic, I think it’s all about survival, something best achieved when working together, something more successful when we give, not take and share but not steal. If I give my neighbour milk he might give me fish but if I steal his fish he might burn my house. And if I don’t eat my cow she will carry on giving me milk. I think our selfish desire to survive and our innate need for love. Please don’t rip me to shreds! :-)
How do you measure happiness?! Maybe non religious people live thinking this life is it and they make the most of it and enjoy every minute while religious people are more focused on the end and the afterlife and give little regard to enjoying this life.

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steph a kiwi

posted March 23, 2009 at 6:59 am

Sorry that wasn’t supposed to be anonymous – I’m from New Zealand where we’re all incredibly happy! :-)

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John C (not John D!)

posted March 23, 2009 at 8:02 am

The Zuckerman book is a useful contribution to the debate about religion and morality, and it’s a good challenge to the tendency among some American Christians to demonise European secularism. But I have several reservations about its argument:
(i) Sweden and Denmark have traditionally been very ethnically homogeneous, and that typically results in high levels of social trust, including greater support for state health care and education etc. So some of the contentment of the Scandanavians results from not having to deal with the challenges of a very diverse society. Of course, that’s changing – note the Danish cartoon controversy!
(ii) is it possible that centuries of Christianity has had some influence on Scandanavian culture, and that even secular people benefit from its ethical legacy? And is it possible that Scandanavian apathy about religion is partly a consequence of its distinctive religious heritage – i.e. a rather bland state-church Lutheranism?
(iii) is it better to be contentedly incurious about life’s big questions, or contentiously engaged with them? Many of Zuckerman’s subjects are not zealous, thought-through secularists, but simply uninterested in the great religious questions. What would Kierkegaard have made of them?

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posted March 23, 2009 at 9:17 am

I think some morals grow out of practical concerns or economic needs a given culture has. I think the bible confronts or interacts with each culture and its morals (properly interpreted however).
For example the book, Rememption of Love, outlines how the roles of men and women evolved in cultures of scarcity and how each society reinforced particular norms to ensure the economic well-being of the most. The author then applies the biblical vision of redemption and reveals how faith redemptively engages us.
I think there is a dialogue between the morals of each society and the moral vision for humanity found in the bible.

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Scott Eaton

posted March 23, 2009 at 9:22 am

It seems that perhaps this is why Lutheran theology argues that “religion” and faith in God are not primarily about our morality or our happiness. Faith in God and more specifically faith in Christ is about justification before God. It is not a matter of morals or happiness.
I think Lutheran theology (the basic reformed view of justification) would then say that one can indeed be very happy and very moral and yet stand condemned by God. In this way of seeing things faith is not about happiness and morals, but about justification. This is the difference.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 9:55 am

Do you need God to be moral?
No. You only need God if you want the word “moral” to have any meaning.
How do traditional Christians explain places where there is very little religious belief but there is a clear presence of good, respectable morals and civlity?
1) Total depravity is not utter depravity. People can know what is right and can do it without believing in any god.
2) Demonic intervention. I’m surprised no one’s brought this up yet. In the popular mythology, “bad people” go to hell. In Christian theology, people who do not depend on Christ for their righteousness go to hell. If we are correct, then we should expect the devil to want non-Christians to be “good” so that they feel no need for Christ.
contend that without belief in God a society will become immoral
Define “immoral.” I haven’t read this book, but people who compare the US to Sweden usually point to crime rates. Ok, they may have lower crime rates (these numbers aren’t completely uncontested, though), but there are other ways to be immoral without stealing and killing.
I think our crime rate is due to the convergence of some special factors. First, Americans are afflicted by a truly spectacular form of hedonism. Second, we have a large underclass who have been taught for at least two generations that whatever they lack is due to their mistreatment by someone else. Third, we have a culture that glorifies violence — a holdover from the myth of the cowboy and the old west perhaps? Our problems aren’t due to our religion but our lack of it.

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Your Name

posted March 23, 2009 at 10:24 am

I think in the long run, our ideas about reality–who’s in it, what the main players are really like, and how they operate–really does shape our plans and patters of action. Yes, I’d say the Danes are still enjoying a bit of a “Christian” hangover of sorts, and are also sticking with tradition and every action tends to replicate itself. Ideas of “normal” don’t change overnight, even if several of the reasons for creating that “normal” have been rejected.
But I think others have made this important point as well: What’s our definition of morality? I doubt it rises to the truly Christian ethic of agape for neighbor and enemy alike. If our definition of ‘morality’ is basic civility and essentially “loving those who love us,” then I don’t think Jesus himself thinks we need him to do that. And certainly many rich, powerful people “die happy” according to the scriptures, but now that happiness is over. But if we want to become something like what Christ is, a fully and functionally cooperative extention of the Father and his healing work, work that lasts forever, then we must become Christ’s apprentice in that.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 10:26 am

Sorry, 17 is me.
And Scott (15), Ugh! You make me want to run as fast as I can from Lutheran theology, if you’ve truly summed it up!

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John W Frye

posted March 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

How do traditional Christians explain places where there is very little religious belief but there is a clear presence of good, respectable morals and civility?
Common grace and a desire for the common good.

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Matt K

posted March 23, 2009 at 10:42 am

A few years back I remember Phil Yancey talking about “moral capital” and he speculated that the Scandinavian countries are subsisting morally on the accumulated moral strength of its older generations before its Christian decline in the mid-20th century. He then speculated that Russia gives us a glimpse into the future as it had embraced an athiestic ideology many decades before the rest of Europe– and from that we see a culture plagued by suicide, crime, abortion, extreme economic disparity, xenophobia, and materialism. One could argue that the particular histories of each country make this apples and oranges; but I wonder if his basic premise is still correct.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 10:47 am

“Do you need God to be moral?”
No. You only need God if you want a rationale for imposing your views about morality on others.
Yesterday my Sunday School discussed a statement someone made about “living according to Biblical standards”. We are reading through the Bible and are currently acutely aware of the fact that God (as characterized by the people who wrote the OT) demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son, that Israel exterminate various tribes they dispossessed, etc. This is recorded within the same book that contains, among other quite different moral concepts, the beatitudes.
We tentatively concluded: 1) There is no obvious single morality contained within the Bible. 2) People today (and in OT times probably) are as likely to use the bible/religion to give cover for their actions or a priori points of view as they are to use it to objectively critique their morality. One justification for these conclusions is the simple observation that within “conservative” Christianity are both the gentle, forgiving, pacifistic Amish as well as the largest subgroup of people that support torture and indefinite detention without trial of “enemy combatants”.

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Josh C.

posted March 23, 2009 at 10:58 am

I would first ask how Zuckerman defines “happy.”
Does that mean that one consistently maintains a positive outlook or that one consistently encounters joy.
For Lewis, it was the presence of joy that convinced him that materialist explanations of the world were false. There had to be something more. All cultures and societies find these joys in the same places (family, sex, friendship, etc.). And on the flip side, bad things emerge from abusing them (Augustine’s Privation of the Good).
Lewis also pointed that, while their are some small dissimiliarities, cultures across time and space share the same values and moral codes and gives quite a good list of primary resources (The Abolition of Man).
But there are two things I want to point out.
1) How can one find happiness in friendships, sex, children, etc. and not despair over the fact one is going to die and lose all experiences of happiness. To be happy about the loss of happiness is absurd.
Thank God for future: the ressurection of the dead, the vindication of those who sought righteousness, the judment of those who embraced evil, the end of all suffering, and the beginning of an eternity of joy.
2)The Danes and Swedes live in a European bubble that is in the process of being popped by Muslim immigrants. How will they deal with others who do not share the same values? How far will tolerance go? Will rascism and nationalistic tendencies spring up? What are the limits to freedom of speech and respecting others?
To sum it up, what are the implications of living with others not like you and how will this affect the “happiness” of the Danes and Swedes?

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posted March 23, 2009 at 11:41 am

ron said: “There is no obvious single morality contained within the Bible”
I don’t think that’s true. It’s just that you can’t boil the Bible’s message down into something simple and sweet like “love everybody.”
God is holy both in the sense of being perfectly righteous (a phrase that should scare the bejeezus out of us if we contemplate it) and transcendent or other-worldly — His ways are very much not our ways. But He has given us a coherent, consistent revelation if we take our time and do the hard work.
(PS, I don’t think you can read the story carefully and think God really intended Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.)

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Mike Clawson

posted March 23, 2009 at 11:55 am

So how exactly do folks here think that belief in God provides a “universal basis” for morality? Would most of you subscribe to a “divine command” theory of morality – i.e. something is right or wrong simply because God said so? And is the threat of punishment or promise of reward also necessary to induce you to obey these commands? And if both of these are true, how does that make you more moral than, say, an atheist who needs neither a divine command nor a threat of Hell to act morally?

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Scot McKnight

posted March 23, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Josh C,
There are all kinds of scales for happiness that are used by sociologists. Those are the scales he used, and what he’s using really is the conclusion of those who have studied happiness across cultures. I wrote about this in Books and Culture not that long ago.
It seems to me that you are disagreeing with Ron on an issue by appealing to a point that is not helpful. He sees variety in biblical morals, and you say the Bible [you changed his term here and it matters deeply] can’t be boiled down to something simple and sweet [these are, of course, both loaded words and almost death to a conversation] like love everybody.
Now it so happens that you’re treading on my own turf but also treading on dangerously unbiblical swamp waters here. It is a fact that Jesus did this very thing: he reduced the Torah to love of God and love of others. And James said that loving others is the Torah (2:8-10), and Paul does this in Romans 13 and Gal 5. John is obsessed with love.
Maybe not sweet and simple, brother, but when understood biblically it is profound and penetrating to the soul.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm

My apologies for treating terms as interchangable that aren’t.
I’m sure you’ve seen the popular caricature of Christ and His teachings as simply “love everybody” where His actual teaching strongly included a radical adherence to Jesus Himself — “he who puts his hand the plow and looks back”, “unless he hates his father and mother,” “the work God requires is to believe in the one He has sent,” — the hard part about “loving God.”
The average American and unfortunately a great many American Christians don’t believe in a holy, just God — a God that is well within His rights to order the death of someone(s) and expects obedience in those things as well.
In short, I suspect our friend thinks the Bible morality is “inconsistent” because he doesn’t like parts of it. Next time I’ll just say that.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

I think that using phrases like “well within his rights to order the death of someone” prejudices the discussion – and leads to a number of theological and social difficulties.
When we look at the OT for example there is a context and a reason not a capricious decision based on “rights.”
I do not see, for example, how we can get from Jesus or the NT any fashion of an extension of such commands to our situation.
And the commands to follow are extreme – but in fact not carried out in the extreme even by the Apostles – except of course that they were all willing to lay down life for the gospel.

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Matt Edwards

posted March 23, 2009 at 12:45 pm

I don’t know if this study presents a threat to faith, but I think that morality apart from God is an argument against faith.
I am really drawn to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s arguments for the “truth” of Christian dogma, specifically his claim that God or the gods can only be known as they intervene in human history. What’s the point of believing in a distant God that we can?t know?
To me, belief in God has to be grounded in historical events that are unexplainable by any other means but by God. There are plenty of these in the Bible (parting of the Red Sea, burning bush, etc.), but the “big four” are creation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the return of Jesus to consummate history.
The problem with using these four events as “proof” of God’s intervention is that two of the four are historical events that cannot be repeated (creation and resurrection), and one is a future event (consummation). We can make good historical cases for the past events, but we can?t repeat them. We can argue about the future, ?Wait until Jesus comes back and then you?ll see,? but that seems kind of pointless. Thus the work of the Holy Spirit in the church is the only contemporary proof of God’s intervention in history.
I think Paul viewed the work of the Holy Spirit in the church as “proof” that God was working in the church and not in Second Temple Judaism. He wrote:
You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Have you suffered so many things for nothing?–if indeed it was for nothing. Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1?5 NET)
For Paul, the “proof” that Christianity was true and that Second Temple Judaism was not was that the Galatians received the Spirit by faith in Jesus and not by works of the law.
I think one of the ways we can know that Christianity is true is by the work of the Spirit in the Christian community. If the Spirit is enabling the church to live the Jesus Creed, then YHWH is vindicating himself as Lord and God. If non-Christians are living more moral lives than Christians, then the Gospel is failing to deliver on the promises it makes, and YHWH is shown to be an impotent ?god.?
The trouble in all of this is pinpointing who is a Christian and how morality should be measured. Can you measure those things scientifically?

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Andrew Tatum

posted March 23, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Unless I’ve missed something, Lewis also claimed – in The Abolition of Man – that there were universal principles of morality (which he called the “Tao”) that are independent of any particular religious tradition and that were present in almost all religions of the world. For me, that fact would make a discussion of Lewis’ apparent claim of the theistic grounding of morality a moot point.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Matt (28),
Fantastic. Absolutely. Our lives testify to Christ’s power, wisdom, etc. or the lack thereof. God has absolved us of sin to enable us to become his intimate and fruitful co-workers for the good of all; his goal is a people he can inhabit and lead into his kind of healing, building living. He sent Christ not just to make the amnesty possible, but also to lead those redeemed into a functioning colaboration as his agents and apprentices, eager for Jesus-shaped goodness. I personally don’t think the kind of living God envisions is possible apart from God, though I’m sure what we might call ‘good’ or ‘moral’ is.

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Ryan Kearns

posted March 23, 2009 at 2:02 pm

You clearly do not need God to ACT moral, but you do need God to explain why you OUGHT to act moral. Otherwise, your moral behavior is really you just living out your own personal preferences in how you want to live life.
Without grounding, morals are simply preference kinda like your favorite ice cream flavor, but never more.
So therefore you can treat others well and be kind and honest, but you have not acted moral you have just lived in a way that you like. Moral implies that a certain behavior is an “ought” that everyone should follow. And if you impose an “ought” upon someone you must have a reason as to why.

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Derek Leman

posted March 23, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Does anybody read science fiction, in which atheistic novelists depict their ideas of an ideal future? Goodbye family (mom. dad, kids).
I agree that C.S. Lewis’s point was more to the effect that morals are meaningless without God and more importantly, that the only explanation for the morals of humankind is our divine origin. The arguments I have heard explaining morality from an atheistic set of presuppositions have been lame (Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great, for example).
Derek Leman

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posted March 23, 2009 at 3:30 pm

I would re-word the title of this post to, “Do you need a conscious awareness of God to be moral?” I think what causes someone to be moral who does not actively claim belief in God is the presence of God living in that person. We are all created in His image and likeness whether we acknowledge it or not and since God is good, it stands to reason that those who practice good, moral behavior are acting in the manner of their creator.

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Phil M

posted March 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Mike (24)

“Would most of you subscribe to a “divine command” theory of morality – i.e. something is right or wrong simply because God said so?”

This is the old “Lex vs Rex” debate – ie, “might” or “right”. This is (to me at least) a fascinating discussion; one that launched my awe of God to new levels as I thought about it.
The definition of what is “good” is bound up in God’s very nature, so when we ask “How does God decide what is good?”, the answer is that He doesn’t decide – it is innate within Him. He is subject to his own nature and cannot escape it (He never changes). The scripture also assures us that God is not like a man, fickle, and able to change His mind on a mere whim.
This is amazing when you consider that God *chooses* do to right. All the time. The very best possible thing that He could do, He does. God is not a robot that automatically does what is right (in which case He would not be moral), but consistently chooses (and always will choose), what is absolutely the best thing for His glory, for the universe, and for His nature.
I find this incredible, but that is, I think, because of my flesh nature. Perhaps when my body is transformed and I am once and for all free of the urges of sin, I will understand how this can be.

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Mike Clawson

posted March 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Phil, I pretty much agree with you on all that. However, my point was not so much about how God knows what is good, but about how we know what is good. For us is it the case that right and wrong is simply whatever God tell us it is? And if atheists can figure that out without God’s help, then wouldn’t that make them more moral than us (or at least smarter than us?) And if they can act morally on their own, without a threat of Hell or reward of Heaven, then isn’t that more moral (or at least less mercenary) than Christians who think that the only reason to be good is so that God doesn’t punish us? After all, I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve heard make the claim that if they didn’t believe in God, they would just go out and commit murder or adultery or whatever. If atheists can avoid doing those things even though they lack a belief in God who tells them what to do and aren’t concerned about going to Hell, that would seem to indicate that they have a stronger moral sense than we do, not a lesser one.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Those with certain worldviews do tend to act as if morality could be exercised without God, infact i meet people attempting this, but whether pagan, liberal or whatever, any basic primal and intrinsic morals originated with the creator ” writing His Law on our hearts” like in Ezekiel, without the breath of Life from God we would simply not be and especially care about right and wrong, His law defines all things and is in all things just as He is.Also, without centuries of Judiaism and Christianity there is not telling what supposive moral would even exist in some cultures.
i don’t know everything about you, but it is a relief today to find some Biblically sound bloggers, THANK YOU

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Phil M

posted March 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Mike (#35)
I see what you are saying.
I agree with the comments above that say we have our moral sense of right and wrong in us as part of our nature. We are created in the image of God, and reflect that part of his nature even though we fail to be consistent as God is. This holds true whether we believe in God or not, whether we are white middle class New Zealanders or some Amazon tribe never touched by the West.
I don’t think you could say that an atheist is more moral than a Christian if they do what is right without “the threat of heaven or hell”. There are several problems with that proposition:
- Christians should be free of that threat you mention. Galatians 4 exhorts Christians to do what is right because of the Spirit within us that cries “Abba! Father!”. It is because we have been adopted as sons/daughters that we live now to please God, not because of the threat of reward/punishment. Those under the law try to obey the law because of that threat. It is the difference between being a slave and being a son/daughter. This is an issue central to Christianity that much of the evangelical Church (IMHO) has forgotten.
- Christians and Atheists are morally equal – that is, morally broken and self centred. Christians have been redeemed though, and we are being transformed by the Spirit every day.
- Atheists don’t (in my experience) have a coherent reason for their “moral” behaviour. Tim Keller suggests, in his book The Reason For God, that despite their protests atheists really do believe in God. This can be deduced by their actions and their longings, apart from their protestations.
Your comment about Christians going out and murdering etc is interesting, and also one I have heard before. I think it is because we (Christians) have been forced to come to the realisation that we are broken and need God to make us whole. Without God there is no broken and we may as well surrender to the passions that drive us. Atheists are in denial about this because they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to deny there is any God, but can’t live as though that were true.
I find it interesting that when Atheists talk about morality and all that is wrong in the world, they mostly seem to talk about “they” who are morally bankrupt. They have not been humbled to the point where they can acknowledge that they are part of the problem (which Christians should be able to freely acknowledge).

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posted March 23, 2009 at 6:53 pm

There we go again, trying to define, explain and compare God from our perspective. Do we forget that whatever it is that He has revealed to us (internally or externally) is for our benefit and motivated by His love for us. “Morality” is a way for a fallen humanity not a Holy God. I’m not even sure if “morality” is even a character quality. It’s religion and religious terminology……which He hates. We don’t need God to be moral, because He is Holy. Try and think beyond the “religious” box. Try Jesus Christ, the Way, who defined God better than any.

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Phil M

posted March 23, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Randy (#38)
perhaps I’m merely feeding a troll here, but:

“There we go again, trying to define, explain and compare God from our perspective”

It’s the only perspective we have…

“Try Jesus Christ, the Way, who defined God better than any”

…which we can only understand from our perspective. Any time you try and say anything useful about God it is filtered through our perspective and our understanding.

“”Morality” is a way for a fallen humanity not a Holy God. I’m not even sure if “morality” is even a character quality. It’s religion and religious terminology……which He hates.”

That is a strange kind of statement that seems quite over the top. Morality refers to our understanding of right and wrong. Since God is described as righteous I think morality is very much related to character. The word is linked with religion, but not the kind of religion that God hates. Why do you say he hates religious terminology? Who gets to define what religious terminology is? And how does “Holy” get to escape that definition?

“Try and think beyond the “religious” box”

Try and be more constructive in you comments.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Tony (8), T (30), Matt Edwards (28), thank you for the reminder that becoming tranformed into Christlike beings who can spread Christ’s healing in the world is the real goal and that “happiness” and “morality” as ends are distractions. This is powerful. And it underlines why debating about whether the Internet is really a community is also a distraction. Thank you.

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Scott M

posted March 23, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Hmmm. This has been in the back of my head all day. Obviously I’m markedly different from most of those commenting and from C.S. Lewis. My first thought was: Of course people can be moral without the concept of a God. All you really have to do is consider Buddhism.
And that remains my thought even after the entire day. Buddhism provides what I consider to be an intrinsically moral social framework. It’s morality is not the equivalent of Christianity’s nor does it flow from the same dynamic. But it is certainly moral in theory by any definition of ‘moral’ I’m familiar with. And it hasn’t done any worse in practice than Judaism or Christianity.
Now, in a somewhat more theistic, but decidedly unChristian venue, I would also say that Hinduism can provide a moral framework as well. I was always more comfortable with its spiritual referents than with the more atheistic (or at least agnostic) framework of Prince Siddhartha.
Or am I missing the point?
I find Jesus compelling. I find the picture of a God of consuming love both frightening and irresistible. But I’m not Christian because I believe that somehow all stable moral frameworks somehow vanish without belief in that God. I’m Christian because I’ve come to believe that the Resurrection is reality.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 10:29 pm

If we say that we need something outside ourselves if we want a foundation or standard for morality, and we say that it is God that provides that standard for what is moral, then on what basis can we humans say that God is morally “good” — at least in any way that isn’t circular?
If we say that God is good, we must be using a standard separate from God’s that allows us to make that evaluation. Otherwise its a tautology — God defines what is morally good, God is therefore good.
This is a roundabout way of saying I agree with Scott M; I suspect that we don’t need God to have a foundation for morality.
This isn’t meant to deny that God exists, or any of the other beliefs of our faith.

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Phil M

posted March 24, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Well, the thread is dying I think, but Eric there is a difference between God’s nature and His character. “Good” is defined by His nature – God doesn’t get to decide what “good” is. God is good, because of His character – He is consistent with His good nature and never goes against it.

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posted March 25, 2009 at 1:10 am

Phil M,
Making a distinction between God’s character and His nature doesn’t seem to me to resolve the issue I raised. What you say still seems circular: God’s nature defines good; by acting consistently with that nature (i.e., his character), He is good.
When Christians say that God is good, they seem to be saying much more than that God never goes against His nature. We seem to be using some sort of standard for moral goodness beyond what you suggest.

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