Custador, one of the bloggers at Unreasonable Faith, thinks he’s solved the problem of morals in a single question:
Are right and moral acts and deeds right and moral because God says that they’re right and moral, or does God say that right and moral deeds are right and moral because they are inherently right and moral? (source)
He believes the answer is hidden option number 3: “Human societal norms are evolved and God has nothing to do with it. Doesn’t that rather neatly solve the problems with options one and two?”
It doesn’t solve anything, because the objection raised is seriously misguided:
Option one (right and moral acts and deeds are right and moral because God says that they’re right and moral) logically leads to the conclusion that God could say that anything is right and moral, including (for example) genocide, child rape, slavery, cruel and unusual punishment… Would anybody ever agree that these things are right and moral? I don’t think so – and yet they’re right there in the Bible – some of them as instructions from God himself. I guess that rules out option one!
God neither commanded child rape (this has been repeatedly demonstrated to be eisegesis) or slavery (laws are in place governing it, but are also in place for murder–are you seriously arguing that because laws exist prescribing penalties for murder that God endorses it?). The protection from cruel and unusual punishment is both a Western ideal and subjective. The problem is really one of nature: nothing uncreated exists apart from God; God created everything. This includes natural laws, i.e. what is inherently good is also under God’s sovereign purview. That means that our own conceptions of goodness, rightness, or morality can’t be used to define or judge God. But that is exactly what Custador is doing in this objection.
Instead, God defines those characteristics by his very nature. Goodness, righteousness, and morality proceed from God’s character and are inviolate characteristics of God’s own nature. Evil, unrighteousness, and immorality are the darkness that try to cover the light; they are the absence of the good traits present in God.
This means that God wouldn’t command an unrighteous act. What may seem capricious or cruel to us serves a divine purpose we either aren’t privy to, or we refuse to entertain because of the darkness within us. The second option is more likely.
The darkness refuses to yield so we can clearly see that the “genocide” of the Canaanites (and others) was a righteous judgment of a sinful people, pronounced by a holy God. We know well the depths of our own depravity, and quickly realize that if held to a holy and perfect standard, we deserve nothing less than what the Canaanites got.
Common to objections raised by atheists, Custador posits a conception of God on the level of the creature: bound by time, space, and constrained by inviolate laws woven into the fabric of the universe. This is a subpar definition of God, and leaves wide open the question of who wove those laws into the fabric of the universe in the first place. If it was a force or being superior to God, then God isn’t God at all.
If you start with God, and realize that he, as the good, defines all that is good in relation to himself (rather than be defined by our faulty conception of it), then you realize that God wouldn’t order an unrighteous act and all that he commands is good and holy. But that requires stepping out in faith (read: trust, not “belief without evidence”). If you trust that God is as he reveals himself in the Bible, then this leap of faith is easy to make.
All that said, can atheists be moral without God? I’ll explain why I don’t think so tomorrow.