Who Needs God?

Creation-of-adam-handKenan Malik over at his blog (h/t: Zack Beauchamp over at Andrew Sullivan):

The difference between believers and atheists is not about whether either can explain the ultimate cause of the universe. It is about how we wish to explain it. I am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. Believers are unwilling to say that. They insist that there must be a First Cause and that that First Cause must take the form of God. They cannot live with the uncertainty about First Cause that comes with non-belief. In Peter Stannard’s words they know – they have to know – that God exists. The difference between believers and atheists is, in other words, not simply a difference of philosophy, it is also a difference of psychological temper.

A similar distinction can be drawn between atheists and believers with respect to the second issue for which it is claimed that God is necessary – morality. ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘The elimination of God’, the theologian Alister McGrath writes, ‘led to new heights of moral brutality’. Though given the extent of brutality undertaken in the name of God, I am not sure that that is a particularly astute sentiment.

‘If God does not exist’, William Craig claims, ‘Objective moral values and duties do not exist’. There is a voluminous philosophical literature on the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, that is between those who see moral values as akin to facts, and those who reject that idea. It is an intellectual swamp, and one into which I do not intend stepping, at least in this talk. All I would say is it is possible to believe that moral questions have non-arbitrary answers without conflating facts and values.