First Sunday of Lent, 9 March 2014, St Mary’s, evening

Can there be morality without God?

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

A sermon given as a preamble to the meeting of the QI Theology Group

In any words from a pulpit about morality, atheism and God it’s probably a good idea to make it absolutely clear from the start that nothing I will say this evening will deny the obvious fact that atheists are often good people – sometimes far ‘gooder’ than your average Christian.

In a strange kind of way the atheist has an advantage over the believer in God. Any good that is done by an atheist is done without any hope of getting into God’s good books or of posthumous reward. Good is done for its own sake. You could say that the good done by a Christian is done, at least sometimes, for an ulterior motive – of gain further down the line.

To put it in those terms is clearly to do no justice to the complexities of human motivation, but I think the point still stands. But belief in God can add an extra layer of complexity to the motivations behind our actions.

So, one up to the atheist, you might say. On the other hand, without the fixed reference point of the divine, the atheist’s moral vision can be open to a kind of drift, a kind of ethical amnesia, and fall victim more easily to other forces, such as fashion or peer group pressure. The Christian can fall victim to those pressures too, of course – though perhaps, one hopes, not so readily. We all know how strong those forces can be.

But again my basic point still holds. Atheists can be and often are good people.

Perhaps I should add that the Christian faith doesn’t deny that some people are better than others. But it does contend that we all fall short – Christian, atheist and agnostic alike. None of us are all that high on the ladder of moral perfection.

I’d like to move on by saying a few words about two atheist writers – the well known 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the modern author Sam Harris, who is often referred to as one of the 4 horsemen of the new atheism.

With regard to Nietzsche here’s a passage from his book The gay science. It has nothing to do, by the way, with the word gay in the modern sense. Nietzsche calls this passage a parable and I’ve filleted it a little for the sake of concision. Here’s the gist of it:

‘Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Has he emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.’

‘The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Where is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?’

Let me just repeat a few of those phrases. What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?

According to Nietzsche God was the entity that gave us direction, that gave us meaning, that gave us value. That was something that Nietzsche was acutely aware of. I think he was right. So, without God where does value come from? The answer can only be that it comes from human beings. Value ceases to be transcendent. Value ceases to be value.

Now, as a Christian I suppose I would say that, wouldn’t I? Nietzsche himself thought there was a way out of this cul-de-sac through what he called the ‘transvaluation of all values’. He put forward the ideal of the Übermensch, the superman, who would trample on herd morality, i.e. Christian morality, and pursue his path of power and victory with discipline and without conventional moral scruples.

Nietzsche was very influential in the early 20th century. Hitler thought highly of him, for instance. I should perhaps add that the two things that Nietzsche hated above all – apart from Christianity – were German nationalism and anti-Semitism. So he was hardly a prototype Nazi.

We may think that many of his ideas are almost laughable but his diagnosis of morality without God is in my view entirely accurate.

The core of the problem lies in that nagging question. If there is no God, what is the source of value? And, especially – from the perspective of this evening, what is the source of moral value. If there’s no God, we live in an empty and meaningless universe, without purpose or direction. It’s difficult to see how values could exist somewhere out there in an utterly empty universe. Why would they?

Without God the only possible source of value has to be in the human mind. Values have to be created in and by the human mind. There’s simply no alternative. But, if values are created by the human mind, in what sense can they be objective? Granted, it depends on what exactly you mean by the word objective but it does seem to me that any value that is dependent on what is in the last resort nothing more than a merely human prejudice cannot be called objective. Real in the very limited sense perhaps of being a phenomenon that actually occurs – but in another, more ultimate sense, profoundly unreal.

And what happens when two people have different values? Who is to judge between them? What could it even mean to say that one value is better than another? It could only lead to an answer devoid of all content.

Let’s now turn to Sam Harris. Harris has almost as much contempt for Christianity as Nietzsche, though his disdain is aimed more at fundamentalism, Christian or Muslim, than anything else. In his book The moral landscape Harris claims that the well-being of conscious creatures is what constitutes moral value. If an action furthers such well-being, it is good.

I’m not inclined to disagree but it does beg several questions. What exactly is well-being? Why should well-being be considered a good that overrides any other? Why exactly is consciousness so valuable? Why don’t non-conscious creatures get a look in? There are probably many more. And from Harris’ point of view, the atheistic point of view, the questions simply cannot be answered, at least not without begging further questions, to which in turn there is no answer. He thinks they can be answered, but he is simply mistaken. He doesn’t even tackle the issue. He merely asserts.

So there you have it: one atheist who, in my view, correctly sees the difficulty when morality is cut off from God and who constructs a rather bizarre morality from the ruins – and a second atheist who espouses a more or less Christian ethic but who has no real reason to espouse it – except as a kind of cultural legacy from a Christian past.

I think Harris is absolutely right to value human flourishing as a good. He criticises those people who claim there is no way, objectively, to place moral value on any course of action. His problem is that he simply has no philosophical or theological underpinning that can support his contention that what he values has objective value – other than in his own mind or perhaps in the collective mind of the human species. He doesn’t have any philosophical apparatus to demonstrate that Hitler or Stalin, for instance, were objectively, absolutely wrong in committing the atrocities they did.

He lays great stress on the claim that science can help humanity achieve its moral goals. That is no doubt true. But by a sleight of hand he wants us therefore to believe that the source of his moral stance is scientific, and he can legitimately do no such thing. Science is simply in no position to provide the legs on which morality can stand.

Finally, I’d just like to come back to the beginning where I said that atheists can be good people. That can happen, I believe, because atheists like Sam Harris are perhaps more in touch with God than they know, more in touch than they’d like to think. I believe that they can be genuinely inspired by God’s Holy Spirit.

I wouldn’t say that some people being atheists is an ideal state of affairs but God is the God of all people, not just of Christians. Paul’s first letter to Timothy talks about the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe – especially of those who believe but not exclusively. I take that phrase to mean that God is working at all times to inspire and guide all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

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