The Failure of Theistic Morality

Defining what is right and wrong in human behaviour has always been a problematic task. Codes of morality have existed for thousands of years, if not in the form of systems of law or clearly defined ethical philosophies, then in cultural conventions, customs, and traditions. While there are many commonalities among them (usually things like murder are prohibited), there has always been contention over what many of these “rules” should be, and from what source they should be derived, especially when groups with widely different moral values intersect.

Many of the world’s religions have prescriptive and proscriptive moral teachings and commandments, and it wouldn’t be a big presumption to say that these could be one of the biggest influences on people’s behaviour towards others. A quick scan through the world news on any day of the year is likely to yield a handful of stories of violence or abuse in which religion was, at the very least, an influential factor. Theists would like us to believe that their religion predominantly drives good moral behaviour, and that any such problems are caused by people who are either not following the religious tenets as intended by God, or have fallen victim to their own sinful nature and are in need of more, rather than less, engagement with their faith.

How can we determine if theistic morality has any value in truth or practical benefit? Many theists would like us to believe that morality is dependent on God, and without religion, society would descend into moral depravity. On the contrary, studies have shown that “higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”1

It’s tempting for critics of religion to draw attention to such correlations as an indicator that religion has the opposite effect (that it directly causes, or prevents solutions to, societal dysfunction) but it’s difficult to compare one country to another, because laws, as well as rates of reporting crimes and convicting offenders, varies from one country (or state) to another. Furthermore, correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, and more in-depth studies would need to be done to determine causation. Nevertheless, while we should be careful to avoid jumping to conclusions about direct causes, the results do clearly indicate that religion does little or nothing to prevent societal dysfunction.

Because the influence of religious morality is difficult to pin down, I’ll instead focus on the arguments for and against theistic morality, and I’ll write more posts to follow about alternatives in secular morality and the practical importance of ongoing conversation and debate over moral issues.

Some of the most frequently recurring arguments that I hear theists use are “how can you know right from wrong without God?” or “Where do you get your morals from?”, but the most common must be “if there’s no God, nothing is right or wrong”.

This last is the most telling example of what I see as an attempt by many theists to reinforce the false assumption that without theistic objective morality, the only alternative is complete moral relativism, in which morality is merely opinion (often described as the majority opinion or consensus defining right and wrong). This, as I will explain in this and successive posts, is a false dichotomy, and a gross under-representation of the breadth of moral philosophy – it assumes, (1) that objective morality, if external to human minds and opinions, is therefore imposed by a mind external to ours, and (2) that without being externally imposed, the only alternative is that it’s completely subjective, or a matter of opinion, which would entail (3) that all actions are necessarily equally moral.

Here’s an example of such an argument from theologian William Lane Craig:

Premise 1) if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist, that is to say if there is no God then everything becomes relative, everything is permitted. Premise 2) objective moral values and duties do exist. We sense that certain things really are good or evil, right or wrong. And from that it follows logically and inescapably that 3) Therefore, God exists. So I think on the basis of these two very intuitive premises, we have good grounds for affirming morally that God exists.2

If no god, how can we have morality?

Secular morality (that is, morality that doesn’t originate in religion) is a vast topic, and I intend to write more about it soon, so I won’t explain it in any detail here. What I do want to point out here is that secular morality is largely based on a rational analysis of things like goals and common needs (or to increase wellbeing), and that we can arrive at determinations on moral issues by virtue of assessing benefits and harms.  I’ll be referring to this kind of reasoned approach as rational justification.

Aspects of morality

There are three aspects of morality that we need to look at: the motivation to be moral, the rational justification (if any) for why a thing is good or bad, and the final consequence (if any) in the form of divine justice, whether it be reward or punishment. I’ll have a look at each of these in the following sections.

Why would people want to be good?

Theists would assert that altruism is a God-given trait. In other words, God has created humankind with an inherent sense of morality, which is how we know right from wrong intuitively. A clear problem with this is the fact that people of different cultures and time periods can have vastly different ideas of what good and bad really are, and this raises the question of whether this innate moral propensity has been instilled strongly enough by God. How, if moral instincts were given by God, is a good or bad action so hard to define?

Bill and Ted

To put another way, if there was no written moral code, should we not all know and agree on what are good and bad actions regardless? If this moral instinct was strong enough, there would be no need of any commandments. People would know the difference between right and wrong – the only commandment required would be to be a good person, or, in the words of Bill and Ted, “be excellent to each other.”

I don’t have any qualms in conceding that if a god existed, altruism could have been instilled as an aspect of human nature. However, to use it as evidence of God is an example of the begging the question fallacy – the theist uses the existence of morality to support the existence of God, while using a claim of God-given traits as part of that argument. If the existence of morality is used as evidence for the existence of God, this divine gift of altruism would first need to be substantiated – simply asserting that because it exists then it must have been given by God is not enough.

When it comes to secular morality, there is compelling independent evidence that human emotional characteristics, such as empathy and sympathy, did evolve. While I wouldn’t use this as evidence against the possibility of a god, it certainly shows the theistic claim that it’s impossible without God to be a mere assumption. Theistic morality and evolution are also not dichotomous. Even if there was no evidence that empathy evolved, the assertion that altruism is God-given would have to be independently supported by evidence before it could be used to support the existence of theistic morality.

What makes a deed moral or immoral?

Theists typically believe that God decides what is right or wrong, but for any action that might be considered morally right or wrong, can there be an independent rational justification? That is, regardless of whether an action is commanded, condoned or admonished by God, is there any other reason for it? If an action is deemed good or bad by God… why?

It seems incredible to me that theists might believe morality is only reliant on divine mandate, but I’ve seen quite a few online who make this claim. Could it be that the existence of rational justification for morality opens the door to doubt the need for God at all?

Socrates - Euthyphro

This dilemma, adeptly presented in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro (spoken by Socrates) as “is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”, might be also rephrased “is an action good or bad solely because God says it is, or does God say the action is good or bad because there is an independent and objective reason why it is?”

This might be better illustrated by an example. If you believe in theistic objective morality, and that God admonishes, say, rape – can you not think of any rational justification for why rape is wrong? Or even better: if you were raped, is the only reason why it’s wrong that the perpetrator had been commanded not to?

If the former – that an action is good or bad only because God mandates it – this would effectively render any harms of an action unimportant and irrelevant to its morality. Would an omnibenevolent deity really be so indifferent to suffering as to arbitrarily assign moral mores on a whim? If the latter – that God ascribes an action as good or bad because of independent rational justification – it would seem that the mandate of a God is superfluous, as the same justification would exist even if God did not.

While it seems obvious to me that arbitrary divine mandate alone is not enough, and for a thing to be wrong there must be a rational justification for why it’s wrong, I suspect that many theists reject this option because it gives a basis for how something can be moral or immoral without the need for God’s mandate, and that certainly wouldn’t help their argument that morality necessitates God. Theists who believe that justification must be present for a thing to be good or bad must necessarily concede that divine mandate is unimportant, and that the necessity of God to morality then hinges on divine justice (reward or punishment) alone.

Divine “Justice” - reward and punishment


Do people really need fear of punishment to be good people? The answer to this would be self-evident for most of us – we do care about others, and the existence of innate altruism and justification for morality described in the previous sections provide a good reason why this is the case. However, this certainly doesn’t prevent all immoral or harmful actions, and we need to have a justice system to punish and deter crimes – that is, actions that we deem too immoral or harmful to be allowed. Such a system can never be perfect – opinions do play a role, and what criteria constitute right or wrong are often arbitrary, which is unsatisfying for many. But does theistic morality provide a better alternative?

Even if the bible was true, we would still need a secular legal system, because the bible fails to provide a complete account of morality. In fact, my previous example of God admonishing rape was generous – there is no commandment against it, and very little in the New Testament to indicate that God even disapproves of it.

Some theists assert that if people stopped believing in God, they would all go out and start committing rape and murder in the absence of a reason not to. There is no evidence that people actually do this, and in addition to sounding like an obscure admission to latent criminal tendencies, it’s also an Argumentum ad Consequentiam – an appeal to the consequence of it not being true, or to put more simply, it’s that the alternative (that people might go unrewarded for good deeds and unpunished for bad) is just not nice. To believe that conforming to one’s own moral code will result in reward, and transgressors will be punished, is a comforting fantasy, but truth cares not for comfort. It’s like saying that if we stopped telling children that Santa Claus was real, they would all misbehave, and therefore Santa must exist. The independent truth about whether God actually exists is inconsequential to the argument, which makes it amusing to hear this in debates on this topic.

A similar argument used by theists is that non-believers don’t want there to be divine punishment because they just want to sin. There’s little or nothing in the way of evidence to support this argument – even for acts deemed immoral by scripture but with no rational justification – and I might again draw attention to the higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and STD infection in the more religious countries. The accusation that non-believers are addicted to so-called immoral lifestyles is patently false.

We have moral instincts and emotions, conventions, laws, and systems of justice, all without the need for religion.

Why is theistic morality appealing?

The fact that divine reward and punishment is such a large part of the theists’ argument is a good indication of why theistic morality is so appealing to many – they are comforted by the satisfying reassurance of believing that their good deeds will not go unrewarded, or that the bad deeds of others will not go unpunished. They just want it to be true.

This, along with fear of the unknown experience of death itself, also explains the motivation behind the invention of afterlife myths. In this life, we don’t see the effects of divine reward and punishment. A very bad person might live a long and happy life and die before ever facing justice, while a virtuous person may suffer from hunger and disease, and never receive reward for their good deeds. To many, this is very disconcerting and unfair, so it’s no surprise that they would wish for a system that promises apt recompense after death. As an added bonus, the reward will also be eternal. It’s no surprise that afterlife myths are present in so many religions, even many with beliefs in supernatural forces that are not specifically a god.

It can be comforting to believe that one’s moral values are fixed or absolute, somewhat stronger than those of any wobbly and ill-defined relativism. Divine mandate gives theists a reason to say that their own moral values are something more than mere opinion, and therefore shouldn’t be questioned, and that if their moral codes influence their treatment of others, then it’s justified and they don’t need to worry about erroneously mistreating others.

I have mainly focused on theistic morality, and ignored non-theistic supernatural beliefs (such as Karma) because they mostly still rely on secular morality to formulate their norms. If I have one criticism of it though (besides that it’s mere wishful thinking), it would be that it promotes moral complacency – that is, people expect others to be rewarded for good deeds, or punished for bad, without themselves having to lift a finger to effect that change – as well as unfair assigning of blame (for example, seeing somebody suffering hardships and saying “he must have done something wrong to deserve that”).

Just as believers might use biblical passages to inspire their actions, they can also look for justification of their actions in the bible, or use its vagueness as a workaround to permit the things they want to do for other reasons (for example, to justify political policy, racial intolerance, or gender inequality). There are instructions like “thou shalt not kill” and “love thy neighbour”, but there can always be another passage, interpreted in just such a way, that can give leave for a believer to override these rules, especially when dealing with people of out-groups.

Scriptural re-interpretation is nothing new. Rather than being a definitive guide to human morality that transcends time periods and cultural borders, the bible seems to have been written to support the moral values of the people who wrote it, and subsequently retrofitted to suit the (albeit conservatively developed) customs of later adherents.

Which god?

If morality can only be provided by god – what exactly is the source of its rules? As there are multiple religions, or even denominations, each with its own moral teachings, it would be necessary to first prove one of them to be true to know that its moral system is objectively true. To simply state that the existence of objective values is obvious is not enough, because secular morality provides an account of why any rational person might consider the same things to be right or wrong based on considered and evidenced rational justification, and the universal needs of human beings. To use the existence of objective morality to prove god’s existence is thus circular – theists are using the superficial “sense” of objective values as evidence that a god exists, while merely asserting that their own god embodies those moral traits.


Because theistic morality is claimed to be objective, it has fixed rules that in many cases are not questioned by believers. To conform to such a limited perspective on morality ignores the immensity of moral philosophy, which has been progressively developed over thousands of years, and the rigid adherence to scriptural commandments entails moral stagnation, an approach severely limiting in a modern global civilization now subject to rapid change, both cultural and scientific. A better approach to morality is crucial, and this is something I intend to write more about in following posts.

I’ve also skipped over some of the specific commandments and teachings from scripture, as this would have made this post way too long, but I’ll also be writing more on that subject soon. For now, I’ll leave you with a few passages that might give an indication of how moral God might be...

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother ... Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city ... And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die. - Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. (Lot, the most “righteous man” in Sodom, offering his daughters to be raped by a mob) – Genesis 19:8

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head… And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. – 2 Kings 2:23-24

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