Jan 31 2015
Psalm 72: 1-4, 12-15 Solomon prays for justice
Moral obligation is a vital facet of any healthy community. But how do you obligate a community that does not believe in God? What basis is there for good morals? Who decides what is right and wrong, and why should anyone agree with them? Any government can enforce laws with guns and jail sentences, but ultimately we need what is right and wrong to be written on a person’s heart. And it has to be equally on every heart.
♦ In 1992 a robber was caught in Rapid City, South Dekota. The robber had a conscience. In his wallet police found a written code of conduct; a kind of robbers Ten Commandments. Among his commandments were: ‘I will only rob seven months a year, I will rob from the rich and give to the poor, if I am involved in a car chase I will not endanger pedestrians.’ Now, I’m sure we will all agree that this moral code is flawed. But he is not the only one with a flawed moral code; in fact it is likely that your and my codes are partly flawed too. But if they are, how do we know? How do we judge each person’s moral code? The obvious answer is that there has to be a universal code by which all other codes are judged.
In Psalm 72:1 King Solomon prays ‘Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.’ Solomon quite clearly believed that God is the source of all justice and that all moral codes, including his own, should be judged by God’s ultimate code. And I’m sure Solomon would have claimed that without God there cannot be justice. The Russian philosopher, Dostoyevsky, put it like this, ‘If God does not exist everything is permitted.’
These are very strong statements. So let’s take a closer look at the whole issue of being moral without God. I would like to ask two questions. The first is brief; the second is longer.
1. Can there be moral goodness without belief in God? Or to put it more directly, can people who don’t believe in God be good? And I think we should all say very quickly ‘Of course they can!’ In fact people who don’t believe in God can be ‘holier’ than those who do! Though I’m not sure my atheist friends would appreciate me calling them ‘holy!’
But just to firm up this statement, let me say that acknowledging that unbelievers can be good is a vital part of Christian belief. Firstly, Christians believe that they are saved by grace not by works, which implies that many people with good works may not be saved. The reason everyone needs to be saved is because no one is perfect, all have sinned. Secondly, Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God and so no matter how flawed their morals may be they will always have a sense of what is right and what is wrong.
But how do atheists and agnostics explain the fact that they have moral feelings? There are two main views. (I) We get our moral feelings from society – we pick it up from parents, teachers and friends. (II) We got our moral feelings from evolution – it was passed on genetically as those with morals survived and those without morals became extinct.
So we recognize that unbelievers can account for why they have moral feelings, and they can be just as morally good as any believer. But now I would like to ask a bigger question.
2. Can there be moral obligation without belief in God? And my answer upfront is ‘no, you cannot have moral obligation without a belief in God.’ Why?
First of all let’s ask what a ‘moral obligation’ is? We are morally obligated when we have to do what is right even though we would prefer to do what is wrong. And we appeal to moral obligation when we tell someone else to what is right when they would rather do what is wrong.
For example; a husband and wife have no food or money. So the husband decides to steal food. The wife says ‘No, please don’t, I would feel really bad if we start doing that!’ Here the wife is appealing to her subjective feelings alone. But if she said ‘No, don’t do that, it’s wrong to steal,’ she is appealing to a universal law which she believes all humans are obligated to follow. And she is telling her husband to obey that universal law regardless of how he feels.
As we saw with the robbers flawed code above, I think most would agree that it’s important for thieves, murderers, rapist and the like to be morally obligated, and not to just run with whatever they feel.
Now here is a question. Can a whole culture be just as wrong as an individual? Can a whole culture have wrong morals? I think we have to say yes. There was a time when whole cultures believed slavery was okay, and the laws of those cultures reflected their wrong ideas.
Today we find cultures that do not allow women to drive or work outside the home. Is that right or wrong? If we say wrong, what right do we have to say it? Is our culture superior? Are our moral feelings superior? Or are we appealing to a universal law that we think obligates all cultures?
When Dostoyevsky said ‘If God does not exist everything is permitted,’ he was not saying that unbelievers could not be good, he was saying that without a belief in God our foundations for moral obligation are shaky because we no longer have a basis for a universal moral code.
Secular philosophers have tried to suggest ways to obligate a society that does not believe in God. The top two suggestions are (I) Majority Rule – here moral law is based on the feelings of the majority. But this is a problem because as we have just noted, the majority once thought slavery was okay. (II) Empirical Research – here researchers look for what makes human beings happy, and laws are drawn up based on their findings. But what if they find that slaves in some cultures are happier than free people in others? The idea easily collapses.
I think secular society has a problem. Without belief in God there is no solid foundation for moral obligation.
Martin Luther King, who campaigned for the liberation of black people, wrote from jail saying, ‘The way we know if a law is just is if it accords with the law of God.’ Well, that’s just what King Solomon was thinking.
The universe has laws. Scientists tell us that they discover laws; they don’t make laws up. There is a Law Maker, he has natural laws and moral laws, and we are all better off when we align ourselves with both.
This sermon is based on a talk by Tim Keller in his 2014 ‘Questioning Christianity’ series
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