Of all the subjects that get me into trouble with theistic friends, morality is probably the most common. I’ve written about it in many previous articles, and will no doubt continue to do so. I’ve explained why the Christian god, at least viewed through a literal reading of the bible, is simply evil by his own standards. I wrote a little about how secular morality works. I examined the bible and found the Christian god commanding things that almost all modern Christians would call immoral. I showed that while not all religion leads to immorality, there is a worldwide correlation between higher crime and prevalence of theistic religion. In several cases, I even touched on the ways certain types of religion foster evil.
At this point I’ve gone so deep into the subject of morality that I’ve spent hours reading articles and watching videos by theists and atheists alike, in order to obtain as much knowledge and understanding of the whole argument as I possibly can. While reading a blog post by a theist recently I was struck with another idea, so here I am writing again.
Much of the back-and-forth argument between theists and atheists over morality could be skipped if everyone involved was was struck with this idea, preferably several times directly in the face. It’s simple: theists and non-theists approach morality with fundamentally different ideas of good, evil, objectivity, and subjectivity. That might seem anticlimactic, but it’s the way in which we differ in our understanding of those terms that is the core of the problem.
Theists say that good and evil are objective truths, and that an atheistic view of the world can’t account for the objective goodness or badness of anything. The second point is correct, because atheists are approaching good and evil as abstract concepts that humans apply to things based on what we think of them, in which case they are inherently subjective and there is no need to account for objective goodness.
A quote from a theist: “Atheism has no objective answer for the existence of good in the universe. To say that it is merely a human idea seems to contradict our most base feelings of what the universe is like. Atheists really believe some things are good. They protest. They feed the starving. They care for the downtrodden. Those who claim that good is only a human construct act as though it permeated the structure of the universe.”
To say that it is merely a human idea…seems to contradict human feelings? That’s fine, human ideas and feelings are not objective truths, and therefore they can contradict each other without the universe imploding. What this theist doesn’t realize is that every piece of evidence they’re referencing is subjective. To claim that goodness is an objective standard based on how humans act is to contradict yourself.
Of course atheism has no objective answer for the existence of good. The word “good” refers to a human opinion, and is therefore subjective by definition. One of my favorite articles on my blog is Creating Our Own Worlds, which I wrote around the time I started to realize I couldn’t be a Christian anymore. In it I said that beauty is a relationship between the observer and the observed. Without an observer nothing is beautiful, because the term refers to a specific way in which an observer experiences something. It should be obvious that good and evil are the same way; they are words invented by humans to express how we experience things.
However, the theist is thinking of goodness as a quality that exists apart from humans, as a sort of natural law like the speed of light. I would argue that such a perspective is not founded in reality because you can’t define goodness apart from an observer with a desired goal. Only thinking beings are able to desire or approve of anything, and it’s the desire for or approval of a thing that earns it the label of “good”. If nobody desired or approved of the thing, nobody would call it good. This is true even if a god is the one doing the desiring or approving. We don’t feel that certain things are good because they’re objectively good. Rather, we call things good because we feel that they are good.
Another problem theists face with a truly objective standard of goodness is that their god cannot be the source of it. A standard that comes from the opinions of a thinking being like a god is a subjective standard. For something to be subjective simply means that it is founded on or affected by the feelings or opinions of a person, and the word person in this case applies to gods as well as anyone else. If you claim that god defines good and evil based on what he desires and feels, then your argument is no different than claiming that humans define what is good or evil based on what they desire and feel. Any objections to human-defined morality on the grounds that it is subjective can just as logically be applied to god-defined morality.
Perhaps theists would then claim that subjective morality defined by a god is better than subjective morality defined by the collective human species, but at that point they’d be making a moral judgment based on their opinions, and thus exercising the very same subjective human morality that they claim is inferior in order to determine that god’s morality is superior!
I should be clear that subjective morality is not the same as relative morality. Moral relativism, the idea that there is no basis for saying that something done by another person is wrong, is an entirely different idea (and entirely false). The point I’m making is that wrongness itself is defined by human experience. We can say that murder is always wrong because it always harms the victim, and the experience of harm is what defines wrongness in the first place. In other words, good and evil are defined subjectively by the experience of people affected by an action, not the opinions of people performing the action.
After my extensive research of morality and so much time spent pondering the matter, I have neither read nor conceived of any way to define good and evil objectively. If you’re a theist who believes in objective morality, how would you define the word “good” without appealing to the opinions, feelings, or experiences of any being? If you think you can do it, I will be happy to consider what you have to say, but keep in mind that doing so requires your god be subject to a moral standard that exists separately from him, and thus you would be proving that god is unnecessary for morality to exist.