ETHICS AND MORALITY Plus or Minus GOD
Is there a genuine meaning of life for one who rejects existence of divinity? Or can a person realize a significant life if one abandons faith in providence? Since death is in store for everyone, is life absurd and tragic because it is finite? Human beings faced with such existential dilemma would cry out, “Can we be happy or why we live if there is no God, if there is no immortal soul, no resurrection or no purpose immanent in nature?” Living a life without God, declining that the universe has a divine purpose but given the existence of evil, is there a basis for moral conduct?
An atheist may say frankly to a theist that he is deceiving himself by the assumption that only a broader purpose of life extended to hereafter be the “Real Meaning of Life” in this world. A philosopher may remark, if human beings are obligated to worship and glorify God in order to enjoy a life forever and ever, what kind of enjoyment there is when an omnipotent God is the Master and the humans as slaves living in a constant fear; a fear that if they do not pledge allegiance to God’s will, they would suffer damnation. For atheist the religions depict a picture of the universe akin to a model-prison where the inmates on the one hand are programmed with free will and on the other hand are living in chains dependent upon their Master not only for existence and sustenance, but also for every move in this life and dependence upon His mercy even in the life hereafter. But the believer replies to the skeptical philosophers, “God promises eternal salvation, not oppression.” For the believer, the humans are free, since man is created in “God’s image” gifted with the ability to choose between good and evil. The atheist remarks that means only if a person chooses to obey the Master he will be rewarded, but the problem of evil turns this drama into divine comedy.
Ha! The atheist bursts, God entrusted man with power and freedom of choice, yet He will punish if man strays from Him. Why at the time of creation did He not program man so that man could not avoid knowing and worshipping Him? Is there any sense that after implanting in man free will, He would condemn man for satisfying his natural inclination? Then why Does He permit suffering and pain, torment and tragedy, disease, war, plunder, rape, chaos and so on? All this in order to test human beings, test innocent girls being raped, to punish many innocents who never sinned, and why visit pain and torment upon infants and children? If they are paying for the sins of others or their parents, is this not a morality of collective guilt? But still the rationalization by the believer continues that evil is due to human beings’ omission, not God’s commission. God gave reason and power to discover cure for our diseases for example cancer etc., learn to stop war, conflict and other atrocities the humans commit and the harm they inflict to the innocents. For a believer there is no natural evil, the only evil is human’s “moral evil.” The philosopher remarks that the inescapable inference is that God permits evil. He could have hanged Satan and could have stamped evil out but He set the devil free. Why should not God be merciful and loving rather than “Legalistic” and “Moralistic?” Is God, as David Hume speculates that “God is like us: merely limited in power.” And for Bertrand Russell the philosopher, “to sing hymns in praise of Him and hold hands throughout all eternity would be sheer boredom. What of the lusts of the body, the joys of the flesh, the excitement and turmoil of pleasure—will these be vanquished in the immortal life? For the free person, Hell could not be worse.”
The believers may refer to scriptures that there are things and matters beyond the understanding of the humans; many yet to be explored, such as the paradox of free will and determinism, and most importantly the problem of evil. Some believer-philosophers maintain that evil may be only an illusion and what appears to be evil may turn out in the end to be good. The believers thus have woven a fanciful fabric of mythological imagination in order to soothe the fear of death and to comfort those who share this dilemma. For the philosopher this may be an ad-hoc rationalization, but it is ridden with some puzzling loopholes.
In order to deal with life full of suffering, living unhappy because of the fear that everyone is definitely going to die, and that the life does not possess a meaningful purpose, religion is often interpreted to be a form of bliss; a form that may release human beings from the pangs and anxiety of being purposeless immortals. But for an existentialist religion is flight from the realization and actualization of human’s naturally attained powers. For them, religions fail to give meaning to life, to exist as humans are, by exaggerating the pathology of fear, the anxiety of punishment, and the dread of death, which are a source of unhappiness. Humans are obsessed with this overextended sense of sin and guilt and they are in fact wavering by their perennial struggle between biological impulses and repressive divine commandments.
Summing up the whole question and answer debate, the most complex problem before the human beings is, can humans really be moral without divine instructions and religious beliefs? Are the humans capable of nurturing moral virtues and a sense of responsibility without the commands or presupposed moral order of a deity or deities? What I believe as moral, the answer depends upon “what is meant by the term moral.” For the believers morality requires the existence of a faith in the pious appreciation of God’s redemptive power. This requires the “virtue” of acquiescence and obedience, as well as the suppression of human’s natural biological desires. For the religious person, if there is no God, is not everything permissible? Would the humans not be rapacious and misuse their fellow creatures. When Nietzsche argued, “God is dead,” the horrors of the twentieth century with its two world wars, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, and the atrocities of Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Slobodan Milosevic have played an unprecedented havoc in the history of humankind. How, without God, charity, justice, kindness, and many moral virtues can be guaranteed. Human brotherhood presupposes a divine conception of individual dignity based upon God’s pattern. To abandon this postulate of the moral life would be to reduce the human race to hunters and barbarians.
Basically, these are empirical questions. Moral sympathy is not dependent upon theistic belief and religious devotion is no guarantee of moral devotion. This leads us to derive that there is ample evidence that ethical and moral concern is rather autonomous, rooted in human beings’ independent phenomenological experience. History of humankind determines that atheistic, agnostics, and skeptics have been moved by moral consideration for others as have believers. Spinoza, Kant, Marx, Russell, Sartre, and many others have had deep moral interest without depending upon religions to support their morality. They have rather demonstrated that ethics and morality, grounded in human experience and reason, is a far more reliable guide to conduct. The highest virtues are in man’s existing for himself. Thus it is possible to be moral with or without a belief in God.
Mirza I. Ashraf is author of many books and active participant of Thinkers Forum USA.