10 “Unanswerable” questions #4

So far, TodayChristian’s 10 “unanswerable” questions have turned out to be pretty easy to answer. Question 4 is no harder.

4. Without God, where do you get your morality from?

All good morality comes from the same place: material reality. Even Christians take their morals from material reality, for the most part. Sure, they superstitiously attribute them to God, and tack on a number of arbitrary, harmful “moral” codes that aren’t really moral at all. But ultimately, morality is dictated by material reality, apart from anything any god could say or do.

The thing about material reality that makes it a source for morality is the fact that it is constrained by a consistent set of what we call laws, such as the law of cause and effect. In other words, actions have consequences. We, as a species, are intelligent enough to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and because we are material beings, we also care about the impact those consequences are likely to have on us. And this includes caring about what others will think about us, based on our words and actions.

Notice that there are two components to morality here: the inflexible laws of cause and effect and material consequences (the “objective” component), and how we and our peers feel about the consequences (the “subjective/social” component). That’s why some moral concepts seem “absolute,” while others seem to evolve over time.

Murdering someone, for example, is a material action that has unavoidable consequences. Because of your actions, a person is now dead. The victim’s loved ones suffer traumatic loss, society suffers fear that you might kill one of them too, and you suffer the repercussions from the victim’s family and from society. Because these consequences are unavoidable, and because they touch some of the deepest and most instinctive of human emotions, murder is consistently and universally regarded as wrong. Society, on the large scale, cannot change the inevitability of these consequences or of our instinctive, selfish, psychological responses to them, so society cannot arbitrarily decide to make murder a good thing rather than a bad thing.

And yet, because morality does have a subjective component, and because people can be part of subcultures and smaller peer groups within a larger society, it is possible for renegade social groups to decide that certain types of murder are “good,” in the context of the consequences the group hopes to achieve. Murder will still be wrong as seen by society at large, but within the subgroup, a different morality can take precedence.

Or take lies and deceit as another example. Believers in general will tell you that lies and deceit are wrong, in the context of the morality they profess. Some of them, however, have no problems engaging in dishonesty when the goal is to advance the cause of their religion. For example, you frequently hear believers complain that prayer has been outlawed in the public schools in America, even though they know full well that Good News Clubs, Cru, Meet Me At The Pole, and all kinds of other Christian ministries are alive and well in the public schools, and have even been defended by the ACLU on religious freedom grounds (as long as they are not coercive and do not enmesh the government in the establishment of religion).

So once again, you have the material consequences of lying, deceit, and dishonesty, and these things are pretty much inevitable. Let people discover you’ve deceived them and been dishonest to them, and you’ll suffer some fairly predictable repercussions, starting with loss of respect and loss of trust. The material consequences of lying are consistent enough, and predictable enough, that society at large has no problem identifying a “moral absolute” about dishonesty being wrong. And yet, when a group perceives the consequences of deceit as achieving some goal they desire, a different morality kicks in, and they go for the dishonest action. Morality is an interaction between the objective, material consequences of our actions, and our subjective feelings regarding those consequences.

The idea of a “moral absolute,” then, is a myth or an oversimplification. “Good” or “bad” are subjective value assessments, and you can’t have morality without subjectivity. But subjectivity is not all there is to it either. We can decide that we don’t care about certain things any more, but we can’t change the material consequences of our actions. There is an external component to morality, imposed by the material nature of the world we live in, and there is a subjective component as well, and neither one can fully explain morality by itself.

TodayChristian likely has a superstitious view that morality comes from God issuing some list of commandments that define “good” in terms of “thou shalt” and “bad” in terms of “thou shalt not.” Even this superstitious notion of morality, however, depends on the assumption of the kind of morality that comes from material reality. No matter how much TodayChristian would like to give God credit for inventing morality, the fact is that we all know God could not righteously declare that, for example, it was “good” to subject small children to sexual abuse. The material consequences of such actions are so consistently negative that, were God to arbitrarily declare it “good,” we would know that He was wrong.

The fact that we can judge the morality of God’s alleged moral decrees shows that God’s alleged morality is itself subject to a higher law. What’s more, even if we assume God is simply legislating morality by divine decree, we still find the material dimension present in the moral principles God is supposed to impose. The “bad” things are the things which have material consequences that we view negatively, and the “good” things are the things which have material consequences that we like. Even God’s supposed judgment has to first “resurrect” us into material bodies so that we can properly experience whatever material consquences God allegedly wants to reward us with.

But what about the things God says are “bad” that don’t have negative material consequences, like eating lobster or weaving together two different types of thread, or lighting a fire on Saturday? What we see, when we look, is that these things are not, in fact, really immoral. These ancient superstitions, cast as a guide to God’s moral absolutes, are simply wrong. And a prime case of this is the requirement that we persecute people who fall in love differently, simply for being different. Homosexuals do no harm to anyone, least of all to any gods, yet the Law demands that we hate such men and women, and do them whatever harm we can. All to satisfy a God who, according to Christianity, is Himself a divine union of three males.

So we see that material reality gives us the best, most valid standard of morality. Superstition-based morality is either based on materialistic reality, or else is applying the labels “good” and “bad” arbitrarily and inconsistently, and often doing more harm than good.


  1. StevoR says

    FWIW My answer here would be empathy for others and also that the same or similar is probably true for you religious person because you don’t follow through or I strongly suspect and hope really believe in all the worst bits that your Holy book – whether Quran or Bible or whatever else – tells you.

    My ethical axioms start with :

    1) The idea that people are people and deserve respect and for treatment because of that – ditto animals, plants and the environment is intrinsically of value and should be respected and not harm as far as possible.

    2) That people should be given as much freedom as possible to do as they choose up to the point where their actions, harm (or jepordise) others or the environment the rest of us live in. Or as famously & superbly well put by not-so-famously Zechariah Chafee, Jr. ( https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zechariah_Chafee ) : “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”


    3) Things in the world is already more than bad enough without anyone needing tomake them worse so thinkand be kind.

    I must admit I can’t always keep to following this basic philosophy but I do try to do so.

    How did I come by it? A mixture of thought, emotion and experience over my life so far.

  2. rietpluim says

    The religious should understand that “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. There are a lot more possibilities than absolute morality or no morality at all.

  3. Menyambal says

    I get my morality from the people around me. Some of it is doing what they say is right, some of it is doing what they do, some is how I think things should be done, and some changes over time.

    What morality am I supposed to get from the God of the Bible, anyhow? Incest is okay? Rape leads to marriage? Anything God says is okay? Anything God promises is not going to happen? Anybody who disagrees with me deserves to burn forever? God sucks at choosing people? The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children? Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was not a dick move? I am forbid the congregation of the Lord?

    (Seriously, I have a crushed testicle and an illegitimate ancestor. So my allergy to shrimp isn’t doing me any good at all.)

  4. rietpluim says

    The question “where do you get your morality from” is suggestive. God is already implied in the question. If morality is something to be gotten from somewhere, and if nothing can come from nowhere (this is one assertion that is almost never explicitly included in the original question) then of course God. That’s why I lost patience with stuff like this. The pundit is never True and Honest.

  5. StevoR says

    I’ve been seeing a lot of good atheist bloggers answer these questions really well for instacne :


    Its been interesting to read and compare.

    Y’know, it’d also be interesting to turn this around and ask Christians (or other Theists) :

    1. How Did You Become a Christian / Theist?

    2. What happens when we die?

    3. What if you’re wrong? And there isn’t any Heaven or Hell or if the Heaven and Hell are those of another religion instead of yours?

    4. Where do you get your morality from?

    5. If God said it was okay even praiseworthy to murder and rape would you do so? Does God reward and even encourage deeds that non-religious people see as evil rather than good?

    6. If there is god, is all knowing and all powerful how does your life have any meaning beyond being a puppet with only an illusion of free will?

    7. Where did the universe come from & if God made it why are Gods divine texts so inconsistent with scientific evidence and logic?

    8. What about miracles – why do some people never get them whilst others supposedly do? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Divinities that aren’t Jesus or the Christian God? What about those who don’t ever claim to have seen saints or angels – why haven’t they done so?

    9. What’s your view of the Westboro baptist Church,Child-molesting priests and Jerry Falwell / Pat Robertson / Ted Haggard?

    10. If there is a God, then why do atheists arise in (almost?) every society?

    Wonder how many of them and would be game to answer those and what they’d say in reply?

  6. Nick Gotts says

    But what about the things God says are “bad” that don’t have negative material consequences, like eating lobster

    Dear Sir, speaking as a lobster…

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