Is God Necessary for Morality? (Kagan vs Craig 2009) part 1

Posted by on September 4, 2011 in Thoughts | 6 comments

These are some thoughts about the the debate between Dr William Lane Craig (American Evangelical Christian apologist)  and Dr. Shelly Kagan (Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and atheist) at Columbia University in 2009, in which they debate whether God is necessary for morality to exist. The debate can be seen here (I won’t post the whole thing here as it’s made up of ten 10 minute clips).

Knowing a bit about Dr Craig, I know that he uses debating techniques with a certain degree of mastery in these debates, and often comes up looking like the winner because he has obeyed the rules of debate. This does not mean to say that his point are any more compelling than his adversary’s, simply that he knows the format for debate, and can counter his attacker in such a way that his points seem to be more feasible. I have never seen a debate where Craig does not try to trick the audience into believing that his side is stronger, but being the skeptic I am, these tricks become obvious once you know what you are looking for.

Below is my summary of the opening arguments and any commentaries I want to make about them as the piece unfolds. I will add my comments in between the summaries in italics. In part two of this article I will add any comments I have about the rest of the debate. You will notice I have more comments about Craig’s arguments than about Kagan’s.

Dr Kagan opens the debate by making the assertion that morality is based upon categorical facts that make our existences together better, much in the same way that Sam Harris talks about an objective standard for well-being for humanity. By taking the standpoint of looking at the facts objectively, behind what he calls a “veil of ignorance” where all prejudices are stripped away, one can look at the topic of morality from a strictly impartial viewpoint. This objective standpoint is necessary in order to come up with a true definition of what an objective morality might be. From this standpoint, objective morality is the set of rules we would give to ourselves if we were perfectly rational beings, and something that could apply to every human being with emotion and self interests left out. For instance, it would be possible to make the statement “Murder is wrong in all possible worlds”, because of the harm it causes to others. All this is based upon the idea of rational and reasonable needs within humanity.

He goes on to to talk about the if idea that the foundation for morality requires “commandments”, and in order for there to be “command-ments” there needs to be a “command-er”, then this “command-er” is of course God. Yet if we disregard the existence of God, some would claim that this means we can then disregard any kind of moral requirements at all. Morals still exist whether God sits as the authority on them or not. The logic of the term “requirement” does not in essence mean there is a “require-er” or law maker. The reasons behind these laws are reason and rational thought themselves, and there are real and useful aspects of human existence that make these laws of morality valid.

And well stated too, if we are in fact evolved from another species, and that species had even a part of the same thing we now call morality, then it is plain common sense that our morality would evolve alongside us. Given that we have large enough brains to understand maths and science, of course as time goes on we will also have the capacity to better understand how to better interact with one-another.

Part of the contract of being a human in society is to adhere to the rules that society has decided are the ones that are universal. We can all identify these rules, and when someone breaks these rules, we point it out to them. These are not laws in the legal sense, these are laws that help us to get along better as a society, and to thrive. Each person in a society expects that those around them should act morally, and in return they too will act morally. This is what binds us as societies, and the authority on morality actually becomes us, all of us, each in through our participation in society. Given this we are completely entitled to  say there can be morality without the need to conjure up a God-figure as its basis.

As far as I can see it, this is one of the best arguments for the basis of morality, and does not require anything more than humans being able to identify and act upon the actions in society that make us function and thrive as people together.

Dr Craig’s opening remarks state that the question at hand is not whether it is necessary to believe in God in order for there to be morality, but if morality itself can only exist because of the existence of God. He then sets about trying to define what it is that is meant by the term “morality. If morality is simply a series of socially accepted behaviours that are agreed upon, the certainly there is no need for there to be a God for this to exist. Humans could have created this societal structure without the need for God to exist. His second definition hinges on the notion that certain things are “really good or evil”. He claims that if there is not a God-directed set of actions that are universally good or universally evil, then Morality is simply an illusion created by society, and is nothing more than a series of behaviours that could change at the drop of a hat. This kind of behaviour, he claims, cannot have any objective moral significance, and to think so would be delusional.

With this he sets out the 3 pronged attack, which says that without God objective moral values, moral duties and moral accountability would not exist. If something is categorically good or evil means that these actions would be as such regardless of whether anyone believed it to be so. He uses the example of the Nazi holocaust claiming that even though it was an act of unspeakable evil, and people who carried it out saw it as an act of good, it would still be evil in an objective sense. He claims that if there is no God, that moral objectivity of that kind can not exist.

There are a few occasions in this debate where I think Dr Craig bridges gaps in assumptions without any basis in fact, and this is one such case.

He goes on to say that traditionally all morals were based in God, being the all-loving, all-caring perfection of morality, against which we base all our actions. Therefore if God exists, objective moral values exist. On the converse side, if god does not exist, why would we think that human beings have moral worth? Atheistically, we are but accidents of nature in an infinitesimal and mindless universe with no fate but to perish individually and collectively in a comparatively short period of time. If this is the case, then why is human well-being is any more important than the well-being of any other creature? Even though we may have evolved our societal morals through natural selection and socio-biological pressures, he claims that there is nothing to make this morality objectively true.

The equation of “God is good, so if he exists then morality comes from God” is another jump in comprehension. Craig structures his arguments in such a way that they seem rational but are in fact making huge assumptions about the nature of the universe.

He uses the example of hive bees to bring up the point that if pressures and evolution had shifted the fate of humanity in a different way, then a different set of moral values would have evolved alongside us. He identifies materialism and determinism as two factors behind the naturalistic worldview, saying that if there is no “mind” behind the brain, then there is nothing that we do or think that comes from anywhere other than our five senses and our genetic makeup. This, he claims, means there is no personal agent that decides to act upon anything, and without this we are mere puppets of our environment. Therefore, we cannot act upon morality, as it’s simply our bodily reaction to stimuli. Take away God, Craig says, and we are left with no objective morality, and are instead “ape-like creatures” floating aimlessly in space with “delusions of moral grandeur”.

While I do agree that everything we experience is the product of the brain’s interpretation, this over-simplification of sensory input and brain interaction is a deliberate attempt to play on the emotions of the listener. People don’t like to think of themselves as mere animals, hence the anti-evolution sentiment, and it’s bigger brother, the anti-mere-animal sentiment. Nor do people like to think of life as pointless, has Craig claims we will if we are in fact “ape-like creatures” at the mercy of our environment. Again the emotional card is played, with the hopes that people will react in an equally emotional way.

Interesting to point out here that theists claim we are given free will so we can act on our own without god, and yet they also claim that God oversees our every movement, saying things like “It’s God’s will that (something) happened”. You can’t have it both ways I’m sorry.

The second point of Craig’s argument hinges around the idea that we have objective moral obligations and duties regardless of whether we think we do. If there is no God to give us the basis for objective moral duties, what basis is there? He uses an example of a lion killing a zebra and the fact that we don’t call it murder. Then the example of a great white shark forcibly copulating with a female shark, and it is not called rape. The claim here is there is no morality within the animal kingdom. If humans are mere animals, then it follows that humans should also have no moral obligations.

Again Craig is using the emotional card to equate humans with the savage world of the animal kingdom.

Craig’s next point is to do with the idea that rape and incest are considered bad in humanity, but happen all the time in the animal kingdom. The claim here is that without the guidance of a God and his rules, we would go about raping our daughters and sisters. He equates these morals to mere trends, that can be flouted by any man, and that obeying these rules is simply adhering to social convention on a par with social etiquette.

This reminds me of the statements that people make like “If there was no god I’d just go around killing my neighbours” as if God holds the balance of good and evil in check by his mere existence.  I’m sure there are some people who really believe this, but if faced with undeniable proof of God’s absence, then I’m sure these people would act much the same way as they do now. Again, the emotional card is played, claiming that people, without God’s guiding hand, would become mere animals.

The third prong in Craig’s argument hinges around the idea that without the judgement of God, there is no such thing as moral accountability. “If life ends at the grave,” he says, “it makes no difference if you live life as a Stalin or as a Mother Teresa.” Given the finality of death, there is no reason to live a good life. If there is no afterlife where we are to be judged by God, then there is nothing to stop people living pure self-indulgent lifestyles. We can inflict all the misery we wish upon others with no fear of being held accountable.

This is the ultimate emotional card. Craig uses the idea that if we could we would try to get away with all the unspeakable acts that humans are capable of, and that God id the force which keeps us in check because of the threat of judgement. What he fails to mention is that in every walk of life, there are those who would do harm to others, atheist, theist, monks, priests, housewives, farmers and politicians. Simply being an atheist does not make a person more likely to commit atrocities, on the contrary, the fact that a person has arrived at a standpoint of atheism makes them more likely to understand the ramifications of their actions so that they may even be less likely to commit evil acts.

If there is no reason to be moral, as guided by God, then life becomes futile. There is no reason to be good to your neighbours. Without the idea of accountability at the hands of God, therefore, compassion and self-sacrifice are nothing but a “hollow abstraction”.

In summary, Craig asks, what is the atheistic basis for moral values, moral duty and moral accountability. If these questions can’t be answered, then in Craig’s view, God is necessary for morality.

My commentaries on the rest of the debate will be continued in part 2.

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  1. You may be interested in a post I’ve got up entitled “Atheists are Differently Religious – and No, Atheism is not the/a Religion”:


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  2. Contractarianism is also a very well established moral philosophy, drawing on the work of Hobbes. It’s always appealed to me for two reasons. The first is that it does conform to an evolutionary explanation. We’re a social species and numerous instincts we possess (e.g. sense of fairness) would be selected for. The second is that it is an entirely rational way to explain the persistence of various moral principles.

    I really haven’t seen any theological attempt to really get to grips with the contractarian argument. If something is evolutionary stable- and rational- then there is no reason why we would shift from that. The argument we could accept say, incest as morally correct via a social contract, is just absurd.

    It’s also curious that Xtian morality extended for many centuries to the torture and murder of countless innocents for the imaginary crime of witchcraft. It’s perverse that a religion that has extolled the murder and persecution of those deemed ungoldy, should suddenly claim that it provides the basis of human morality.

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  3. Nice job so far Martin. Keep up the good work.

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  4. Covenant morality for humanity-the presumption of humanism argues that humanism has an objective morality that wide-subjective morality underpines- yes, a paradox.Anyway, we can ground morality in consequentailism that well-being or happiness underpins.

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  5. Ten 10 minute clips? 100 minutes debating something that is moot, as no god upon which a moral code has been based has been shown to exist. These people are missing the point.

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  6. Cary, Craig’s whole argument is that (his version of) God must exist if we admit the existence of objective moral values. He isn’t necessarily using presupposing the existence of God in order to show that there is an objective morality. On the contrary, he tries to argue from the existence of objective morality and say that the only possible way that objective moral values could exist is admitting the existence of God.

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  1. Is God Necessary for Morality? (Kagan vs Craig 2009) part 1 | Martin S Pribble « Humanist Griggsy on Humanism - [...] viaIs God Necessary for Morality? (Kagan vs Craig 2009) part 1 | Martin S Pribble. [...]

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