Reasons for the claim “Morality requires God”

There is more than one reason why people claim that morality requires God. Not all the reasons involve the same commitments and not all of them need to be compatible; and within each reason there are degrees of strength (for example, one might admit broad exceptions, or no exceptions at all)

The point here is to show the diversity of reasons, not to argue for any one. Some are stronger than others, some have been defended by atheists and theists alike, and all would require a good deal more justification and argumentation to decide one way or another.

1.) The Kantian. This is the most extreme version of the claim. For Kant, the existence of God is a practical postulate of moral action. In the Kantian system, an atheist can only stare at a moral problem like a man without a car jack stares at a flat tire. Not admitting the existence of God would keep us from being able to do something.

2.) The Ontological Condition. On this account, one says that God is the objective basis of morality in fact, but that one is capable of acting morally, at least to some significant extent,  even if they deny this objective basis. As a practical manner, one can be good and yet deny the existence of God, but yet moral action and the non-existence of God are logically incompatible.

3.) The Experiential. It is best explained by syllogism:

Who denies the existence of God cannot be holy.

Holiness is the highest or most noble form of moral life.

The first premise is more or less axiomatic, though some quibble scan be raised with it. The second premise, however, is purely experiential. It is based on ones personal interaction with holy persons. “Holiness” does not reduce to some set of more simple qualities or virtues: it is itself its own perfection and must be experienced as such. Like all experiences, our personal dispositions, the strength of our own lights, and the force of our pre-established habits and beliefs will play a role in the experience. Again, like most or all experiences, deception, rationalization and delusion is a live possibility.

4.) The Social. While any one man or small group of atheists might succeed in being moral, no society can so succeed, at least not for very long. This argument might be weakened to the claim that religion is the best or  simplest way to have a popular or social morality.

5.) The quasi- Augustinian. Man naturally desires God in a significant way. To deny the existence of God is thus to fail to be a good human being.

6.) The Christian. Man can know what is right to do by nature, and therefore in some sense by himself, but he cannot succeed at being good without grace- and grace (or at least lasting grace) requires some active co-operation with God. Man has a natural knowledge of morality, but this knowledge, of itself, will condemn him. This is why St. Paul called the revelation of  natural morality to Moses “the dispensation of death” (and it is exactly this  natural morality that the Gentiles have “written on their hearts”- which is exactly what allows Paul to conclude with the Psalmist that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. This is also why STA follows his “treatise on law”- which everyone reads- with his treatise on grace; which teaches the reader that none of the stuff he just learned can be accomplished without grace.)


  1. The 27th Comrade said,

    May 3, 2010 at 4:08 am

    For me the biggest reason that it is true to maintain that “Morality requires God” is because one to whom the arguments for the existence (and pertinence) of God are unconvincing, the arguments for the existence (and pertinence) of morality are also necessarily unconvincing.
    This, of course, assumes that he is consistent, which is almost always not true.

    But if one accepts any single variant on any single argument for the existence of good behaviour and the pertinence of it, one accepts an argument that is not even as compelling as any naïve one for the existence of God and the pertinence of Him. If one is consistent.

    Meanwhile, what you say in point number six is, for me, best-expressed as “Romans 7:11-8:1!”
    Keep up the good blog.

    • May 3, 2010 at 5:52 am

      To be clear, I’m not presenting any of these as true, even though I pretty clearly agree with the sixth one, and I’ve spoken approvingly of the third one. I wanted to give the arguments for the contrary position, but I didn’t have time.

      The argument you are giving is a variant on #2 above (or my #2 is a variant on yours- the order isn’t important here) The general idea is that God is the real foundation of morality, though we can to some extent act morally without recognizing or even denying this foundation. IMO, this is a modification and correction of the Kantian option. There are important differences between this and #3-6; though depending on how exactly one articulates the details of #2, it might be blended into the other opinions. I stress, however, that #2 is really contrary to what Kant said- it sets up exactly the sort of speculative knowledge of God that Kant thought he showed impossible.

      It’s worth noting that many of these “no morality w/o God” opinions seek to establish moral obligation, but from the Christian perspective, the establishing of obligation would more condemn us than help us to be moral. In fact, the more we learn about morals w/o praying and turning to Christ, the worse off we are, since we simply become more and more aware of a standard that we find ourselves powerless to fulfill.

  2. desiderius said,

    May 3, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Dr. Chastek:

    While I agree that without God’s Grace, a man is powerless in practicing genuine virtue, I can’t say I agree with what you said here:

    “To deny the existence of God is thus to fail to be a good human being.”

    At the risk of sounding Pelagian, what of those who practice some level of charity and yet either doubt or deny the existence of God?

    I guess it all depends on how you define the term “good”.

    Moreover, when you speak of “God”, do you mainly speak of the Christian God Himself or would you entertain, like it would seem C.S. Lewis did in his The Last Battle, the notion of a sort of universal salvation (for lack of a better term/phrase) who believe in other dieties and yet practice a sort of Christian virtue nonetheless?

  3. May 3, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    ” I can’t say I agree with what you said here:

    “To deny the existence of God is thus to fail to be a good human being.””

    That’s fine, but you’re not disagreeing with me, I’m just noting arguments here. I don’t know that there’s enough detail in anything said to agree or disagree with it, and all of these positions could have a greater or lesser margin of strictness.

    “when you speak of “God”, do you mainly speak of the Christian God

    No. More the opposite. #4 strikes me as a very pagan reason (very Roman), and Robespierre insisted on it (though a Christian could say it too). #3 could apply to any experience of holiness, which can be present more and less in various religions. Religion itself is a natural virtue, so there is something natural about holiness. #2 isn’t properly Christian either, or even “religious”. Bill V makes it, or something like it, as did Voltaire (though again, a Christian might make the same argument). And Kant didn’t think any properly Christian doctrine was required for morality. Only the last reason is properly Christian.

  4. j mct said,

    May 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    It would seem to me that before one can think clearly about morality, one would have to consider what the distinction between moral and immoral is, and it would seem to me that in order to do this one would need to have a clear and distinct definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you look in the dictionairy, or at least in mine, all one will see for ‘good’ is examples of it being used, and lists of synonyms, there isn’t a definition.

    When we use the word ‘good’ we are comparing whatever it is we are looking at to something perfect, in that if we say something good resembles the perfect more closely than something bad. If one were to tell a kindergartener to draw circles the best circle would be the one that most resembles the perfect/ideal/platonic circle that geometers reason about. In addition if one circle is better or gooder that another one it’s closer to perfect, and if a circle is as good as can be, then we say that it is perfect.

    The second thing about the word good, and one hates to use this word for it since analytic types have been poisoning the well here for about 100 years, is that the word used by itself is meaningless. Something that is good is necessarily a good ‘something’. When I taste some wine, and say ‘That’s good’, I’m saying it’s good wine.

    Also, it seems to me that actions or deeds, aren’t what is good or bad. There are no ‘deeds’ amongst the seven deadly sins, they’re more like character flaws that leads to what one might call immoral actions.

    It would seem then that the ‘yardstick’ for morality, the goodness or the badness, is the doer of the deeds, the man himself, and moral actions would be just what a good, excellent, or perfect man would do in situation where he wasn’t under any sort of compulsion. We don’t do the right thing all the time because we are sinners, i.e. imperfect, i.e. bad, men.

    An atheist couldn’t be moral because he cannot believe in the real existence, even notionally, of a perfect man that all the Joes and Bobs running around can fail to resemble.

  5. May 4, 2010 at 6:14 am

    It’s a pretty extreme sort of atheism that can’t even admit the notional existence of something- certainly not the only kind. And at any rate, I don’t see why either atheism or its opposite commits one to the denial (or affirmation) of an ideal human being.

  6. j mct said,

    May 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

    An atheist could most assuredly have a notion of a perfect/ideal human being, but where would it come from?

    Firstly all this originally comes from, or has it roots in solutions to the problem of universals, and the particular thing that got Plato and guys like Plato (Pythagoras) going on this wasn’t perfect men or horses, or at least I think so, but I think your knowledge of intellectual history on this is better than mine. It was geometry, and why it seemed to work so well.

    Euclidean geomety is all about points, perfectly straight lines, and perfect circles. There are no points, perfectly straight lines, or circles in nature at all, the notions that geometers and mathematicians argue about are not derivable from sense experience, somehow we just know what they are, Plato had his theory, Aristotle had his, because if we didn’t we couldn’t do geometry, and men do do geometry. In addition, in order to have an friendly arguement about geometry, both geometers have to be on the same page, i.e. their ideas about a perfect circle have to perfectly match, or they’ll never get anywhere.

    There are plenty of situations where this would not apply. Say a chef made a pot of minestrone. I think it’s perfect, but you don’t, not enough garlic. We each have a notion of what a perfect/ideal cup of minestrone tastes like and the source of this notion is what would please us the most, and it would silly to argue about whose ideal ministrone was better, there is no higher ideal minestrone that your notion or my notion might more perfectly resemble. In addition, if I were to really compliment the chef I would say “that’s minestrone the way God intended minestrone to be made!”.

    As far as an ideal object that something in the world might or might not resemble in varying degrees, “what pleases me the most” is as far as an atheist can go, there is nowhere else. If two atheists are discussing morality, and both were competent in that what they think would most please each of them is what would in fact please them, and one says I think that it most please me if men were like X, while the other says Y which is not X. Obviously X and Y need not be comprehensive, poets are fine as are mathemeticians, but all men should be loyal, steadfast and true. If they have both competently arrived at X and Y, and what pleases them is the only criteria that they can have, can they have an arguement about morality at all?

    They might argue about it, but then their arguements might be of the order of one saying to the other, ‘you are mistaken about Y pleasing you, you’d really would be pleased better by X’ and lots of moral arguements, especially between atheists seem to tend to be of that sort, but I have precluded that in my example. If the two guys were moral lawgiver types, they might get into an arguement as to what might get onto a tablet of some sort, but the arguement would more of a negotiation, like what might occur between two parties arguing about a contract, and a negotiation isn’t an arguement like what might occur between two geometers. In addition, an iron rule of negotiation, is that negotiation is what one does when one is not in a position to dictate, so if the guy who likes X was the dictator, X will be on the tablet, he wins the arguement/negotiation, and moral reasoning becomes some sort of Foucaultian power relations thingy, justice is the interest of the stronger and all that.

    One can easily imagine two atheists getting into a bona fide arguement, because they often do, about morality, as in not an arguement that the guy who thinks Y would please him the most would really like X better, or a negotiation. If they do do that though, they are assuming, like two geometers arguing about the properties of a perfect circle, that there is more to the ideal man than merely what they find pleasing. Whose ideal man would the ideal man be that they would then be necessarily arguing about? And how, barring revelation (the disputants are atheists) could one figure out what the predicates of the ideal man are?

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