Does a moral or ethical code need God?

‘Is it ultimately possible to know what is right and wrong without acknowledging the existence of a deity?’ asks  this  recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. Peter Hitchens, (younger Christian brother of atheist Christopher Hitchens) ‘insists that, to be effectively absolute, a moral code must be beyond human power to alter.’

 In contrast, this abc online article claims: ‘Unfortunately, when it comes to constructing a robust and reliable morality, the supernaturalist approach is horribly prone to error….That’s not to say a secular approach isn’t also prone to error. But, the big difference – the difference that really counts – is that the secular approach is always open to scrutiny. It always allows for others to ask “why” about any of its moral prescriptions. And, as such, it is open to revision in light of new evidence or new arguments, and it’s more easily able to correct its errors.’

The first article claims it is impossible to assert objective morality without referring to an outside absolute being, the second claims this reference to an outside deity is the weakness of religious moral codes, and the strength of a secular moral code is its ability to be questioned and adapt if necessary. Which (if either) is more reasonable? The ability to adapt or change a moral code appeals to our desire to be able to control moral standards, but does it really make a better moral code? Isn’t it just self-centredness, wanting to be able to define for ourselves what is right and wrong?  

One problem with the approach advocated in the second article is that as helpful as it can be to consider ‘why’ something is right, to answer by saying ‘because that is what a majority of experts or people currently consider best’ is not more satisfying than saying ‘because God says’. On what basis can we say the ‘majority’ are right? Were the ‘majority’ of Germans right in supporting the Nazi regime? Many today would want to say no, but on what basis?

The reality is that anyone can make their own moral code –we all do to some extent. Human beings are very ‘moral’ beings with a sense of right and wrong. We all have ethics or standards of some sorts. In addition, we all make judgements about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the behaviour of others. No matter how ‘non-judgemental’ we may claim to be, we all look at the behaviour of others and claim some things that others do are wrong. What basis do we have to claim another person’s actions are wrong?

Where does this sense of right and wrong come from? The Bible says we are made in God’s image, and he has placed his law in our hearts – so our consciences tell us when we go against his ways (Romans 2:15-16). New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens say this sense of morality has just evolved over time with the species.  Yet Hitchens strenuously claims certainty about various ethical matters. How can they be certain if they are subject to change? A common criticism of New Atheists such as Hitchens is that they have no basis for their morality. In strenuously claiming certainty about ethical matters, he is borrowing Christian concepts while denying the Christian framework which validates those concepts.

If God does not exist then objective moral principles and obligations cannot exist. Morality is reduced to either individual or cultural opinion. Yet humans have a deep sense that some things are objectively wrong. Can you really live with the conclusion that murder, rape, child abuse and other atrocities are not objectively wrong, they are just a matter of individual or cultural opinion?

An important reality is that we are all moral code breakers. None of us perfectly live up to our own standards, let alone the objective standards God has set. As a result we all feel a sense of guilt at times for doing things we sense are wrong, and failing to do things we should have done. Christianity points us to the one person who has perfectly kept the moral code. Through living the perfect life none of us have, and dying a death for the wrongs committed by others he makes a way for moral code breakers like us to be forgiven. The message of Christianity is not so much the moral code – but the God it points us to, the God we can know intimately through Jesus.  


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