Can There Be Morality Without God?

Introductory remarks given at the debate held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

By: Fr. Hans Jacobse

I want to thank the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the Secular Student Alliance of UMBC for their invitation to debate this evening. I am looking forward to a healthy and vigorous debate that is not only academically interesting, but I think is one of the central questions of our age.

We live in what some people call a post-Christian or post-modern society – an assessment I generally agree with, but like most sweeping claims it can mean different things to different people. It’s prudent then that we define our terms.

The question we are discussion this evening is: Can there be morality without God? I argue no it is not possible. But before giving you my reasons, let me rephrase the question more in line with atheist presuppositions.

Atheism, properly understood, allows for no objective existence for anything non-material, not made of matter. Materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism, a point that anyone familiar with more than the surface character of the atheist argument will recognize as true.

As such, it should be noted that atheism is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, at least the variety we will speak of this evening and which Mr. Dillahunty, if his website is any indication, confirms. And it is recent phenomenon because philosophical materialism as a cultural movement (some people call it scientific rationalism or naturalism) is relatively recent.

So in the interest of clarifying the question let me ask it this way: Does atheism acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent, of any being or even principle apart from matter, apart from that which can be quantified using the tools of science? The answer — if the atheist is true to his principles — must be no.

Does this mean that an atheist is inherently immoral? Of course not. There are plenty of moral atheists. It does mean however, that the atheist, despite his embrace of moral principles and sometimes even his passionate defense of them, can draw his morality from nothing deeper than private belief or social convention. No transcend referent; no authority beyond his conviction about why some actions are right over other ones exists. His dependence on philosophical materialism does not allow it.

From the point of view of someone who holds to transcendent causes, who believes as I do that a definition of reality cannot be reduced to matter alone; that matter is not the source of what directs and shapes our ideas of meaning, aesthetics, justice and so forth, the atheist may indeed hold moral view congruent with my own. In fact, he might even be more moral than I am. Nevertheless, the moral value he places on one act over another is necessarily derivate, which is to say drawn from a view about the operations of man and society outside of the atheism in which he operates.

Atheists take umbrage at this statement and I can understand why they do. They get offended when I state that their moral views are derived from the categories and grammar of the Christian moral tradition. If the atheist says for example, that killing is wrong, then he is not drawing from the first principles of his materialist philosophy, but from the precept first delivered in the text of Christian scripture, from the narrative of Moses descending the mountain. And, as the story says, this precept has a transcendent source and origin, derived from something more than the molecules that made up Moses or, if you will, the molecules that make up the text that gives us the story of Moses.

One could argue of course that non-Christian cultures also recognize that killing is wrong and I agree with this point. But the point here is not that Christianity has an exclusive claim on moral truth (it doesn’t), but that even the other religions still recognize what I call a brute fact of human existence: Man cannot live by bread alone. Another way of saying this is that man is more than the molecules that shape his body. These religions, like Christianity, reject the materialist claim that all that exists is matter; that only quantifiable objects are real.

One final point, and one that I don’t think can ever be reconciled with the atheist view is this: I believe that truth is a category of existence – a transcendent category of existence – that exists even apart from my comprehension or understanding of it. I may think that I know what is true, in fact I might even really know what is true — but my belief does not bring that truth into being. In other words, truth exists independent of whether or not I believe it just as light exists independent of my ability to see light. True, if I am blind to light it has no effect on me. I can’t see things. The light however, still exists.

I am not sure how the atheist can assert the existence of any enduring truth. The best he can do I think is assert that truth has a pragmatic character. Truth just happens to be what most people believe is right or wrong. The atheist is correct in asserting that truth has a pragmatic character, but he is also bound to this definition. For the atheist truth, and thus morality, can never escape the confines of this relativism. He remains imprisoned to the shifting winds of the day.


  1. In answering the question, “Can there be morality without God?” I would say yes, but such a morality lacks the depth of a morality with God. A morality with God provides certain spiritual guidelines that a person can live by — such as the 10 Commandments — but a morality without God is vague and often self-centered, and this uncertainty and selfishness inevitably results in a dichotomy in determining what morality includes and what it does not include.

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    George, a person can be moral without God, but denying any referent outside of matter itself, there cannot be any kind of morality outside of social convention or personal conviction. In a society that is still nominally Christian, that is, still has a memory of the Christian tradition, that morality will most likely be Christian in character. When the memory dims however, the morality will become what ever one makes it. Of course a society cannot function when that degree or moral relativism prevails. Then we move, according to Nietzsche (and I think he is right), to the rule of the Strong Man.

    All that is left when men leave off God is a will to power. It’s a historical inevitability. Western culture cannot move in any other direction except of course back to God.

  3. Fr. Hans:

    This is precisely the question that Kant addresses in the Critique of Practical Reason. Ironically, Kant found the solution in the Christian doctrine (without the Transcendent, of course) in a restatement of the Golden Rule (Do unto others…etc).

    As you are well aware, he postulated that man, if he views himself in the position of the “universal legislator”, which legislation will apply to him as well (a variant: the king promulgates the law but is bound by his promulgation), will postulate a law and act in accordance with it, if it in his best interest. Therefore, Since I do not want to be killed, I postulate the law “thou shall not kill”. It is seductively attractive. However, it breaks down in the abnormal situations: e.g. my pain is so great from the cancer that I want you to kill me. Therefore, killing becomes moral in some situations.

    Kant, I daresay, then evolves into hedonisim (perhaps, a law allowing abortion) or utilitarianism (a law allowing not only abortion but confiscation of property). The only difference between Bentham and Mill, on the one hand, and Marx and Lenin, on the other hand, is whether the “universal legislator” be the individual (which may lead to anarchy) or the state (which definitely leads to totaliarianism).

    Morality, to avoid being relative, can only exist within the context of the extrinsic. Man’s choice is God or the State. However, since the State is governed by men, it is really not extrinsic.

    • This is a misinterpretation of Kant’s ethical philosophy. It is not consequences that govern which maxims can be legitimately adopted – if that was all there is to it, then you are right, it would reduce to utilitarianism. This is how Mill interprets Kant.

      Only maxims that can be universally willed without contradiction are ethically permissible. So the problem is not that a universalized maxim does not produce the right consequences, but rather, that a universalized maxim either literally destroys itself or works against normal human ends. In both cases what is problematic is that a maxim or law cannot be rationally adopted universally. If we only use reason to figure out how to get the sorts of things that we want, we are only acting on hypothetical imperatives(“If you want Y, then do X”), and Kant makes it clear that morality is about the Categorical imperatives (“Do X!” – always, everyone, everywhere).

      Kant is categorically against suicide. The person who commits suicide treats themselves as a means to the end of lessening suffering and it is inconsistent with respect for humanity as an end to treat oneself as a means in this way. This also leads Kant to say that sex outside of marriage is also immoral. Even in extreme situations, Kant sticks to his ethic, which is why he famously argues that one is not morally permitted to lie to a murderer at one’s door in order to save a person’s life who is hiding inside one’s house. This is in keeping with the Stoic dictum – “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

      Finally, Kant himself argues that the existence of God is a practical postulate or rational faith. It is something that must be believed (although not known, he is also quite clear about this) in order for morality to make sense. Since the moral life so often requires us to act in ways that run counter to our own happiness, we must believe that God exists as the being who will ensure that someday happiness and moral goodness coincide, or in other words, so that happiness will be distributed according to virtue. God is not at all necessary in determining the content of morality – human reason does this by issuing commands, namely Kant’s Categorical Imperative, but Kant does insist on belief in God as a psychological necessity. How can we really be moral if we are convinced that our own moral lives will be marked by nothing but misery. The belief in God’s existence inspires us to be moral during those times when it is the most difficult.

      • Nathaniel: I think you have misinterprested my comments regarding Kant. In terms of what he says, you are absolutely correct and I am in total agreement. My point merely was to suggest, perhaps not so clearly, that Kant leaves no solid basis for developing categorical imperatives. As such, pilosophy was caught in a trap that, by others, caused the development of utilitarianism as the extrinsic measure. The problem that I see is that all morality is reduced to the subjective without the extrinsic (better yet, Trancendent). Philosophers can create all of the constructs in their infinite variations that they have. However, without an extrinsic basis for morality, the human mind will always turn to what is in that particular individual’s best interest.

        I cannot take any one seriously who argues that it is not morally permitted to lie to a murderer at one’s door in order to save a person’s life who is hiding inside one’s house. By what basis can one suggest that do not lie as an imperative overrides that conflicting imperative of do not kill (or in this case, abett in the killing). It would not be in keeping with the Stoic dictum to which you refer – “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” The cited situation would be the epitome of injustice.

        P.S. I’m enjoying reading some of your other posts regarding Kant. You seem to have a good understanding

  4. Atheism is immoral by definition. Ingratitude is a deep character flaw and a deadly sin. We cannot prove with their atheistic logic that God exists. Their logic says that:
    a) laws exist in everything ( in the macroscopic and microscopic world) but no one made these laws; they are from themselves.
    b) these laws have no purpose: man comes and goes forward until death and he is finished.

  5. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Eliot, excellent point and one I have been pondering for a while. The Darwinist, if true to the Darwinian creation narrative that chaos/randomness (no preexisting logic) was the state of the beginning of the universe, has to conclude that the laws that govern the operations of matter actually arose from the matter itself. Marx thought that ideas (and thus meaning) have no independent existence at all; ideas are just a function of the neurological processes of the brain.

    Extract God from your thinking, and the Logos — the comprehensive logic that interpenetrates all of the creation — disappears from view. It’s really a descent back into superstition; an incredulity about the elemental forces with no comprehension that they can be comprehended. For the atheist however, the incredulity is willful while for the ignorant it is merely naive.

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