Can We Be Moral Without God?

Can we be moral without God? We live in a moral universe. Theists believe God, a moral being created us as moral beings and entrusted us with moral responsibilities. In theism, God is the first moral being. Atheists also believe in morality. In fact, they claim that their fight against God is a moral struggle. Writing in New York Times, English philosopher Michael Ruse observed, “The New Atheists are not a comfortable group of people. They have scornful contempt for those with whom they differ — that includes religious believers, agnostics and other atheists who don’t share their vehement brand of nonbelief. They are self-confident to a degree that seems designed to irritate. And they have an ignorance of anything beyond their fields to an extent remarkable even in modern academia. They also have a moral passion unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament.”

   Note those words: They have a moral passion unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament. Atheists contend that they would rather go to hell than living with a God in heaven whose morality they  cannot accept. British philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) once said, ““I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.” Ron Reagan, a Radio show host and son of late President Ronald Reagan, often promotes atheism through television ads paid by Freedom From Religion Foundation. He ends each promotion with the words, ‘This is Ron Reagan and I am not afraid to burn in hell”. So, you see, these atheists say, ‘We will rather go to hell than go to heaven and see this God, whose morality we cannot accept.’

   So, both theists and atheist, we have moral passions. Whether we like it or not, we are surrounded by moral statutes. Right from childhood, our parents teach us what is right and what is wrong. We are often asked, ‘What is the moral of this story?’, ‘What is the moral of this building?’, ‘What is the moral of this play’? ‘What is the moral of this book?’.

  After their education, medical graduates take Hippocratic Oath, “I will keep pure nad holy both my life and my art”.  There are certain moral standards which should never be violated. That is true in every profession and occupation.

   We all face the reality of morality in this world. German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) wondered, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

    The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me! Like Kant, most of us are fascinated by the visible universe around us and the invisible moral laws within us and around us.

What is morality?

Defining morality is no easy task. It’s a mystery why we mumble when we are called to define many things in life which have been so familiar to us, such as God, religion, love, beauty, morality, logic etc, etc. We hear these words almost every day, yet we struggle to define them. Professor Timothy Luke Johnson defined morality as the ‘code of behavior that is thought to follow from the religious experiences and convictions of adherents’. A code of behavior from religious experiences? Atheists do not approve of this definition. Admittedly, this definition sounds very religious. Can we define morality in a way that does not sound religious? Let us say, ‘a code of behavior from human experiences.’

United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography as, ‘I know it when I see it’. I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it. Personally,  I find morality in the same category. I can’t define morality but I know it when I see it. We have an innate sense of morality within us. So, I will leave it undefined. But I would like to describe how I perceive morality from my own experiences so far in life.


Morality involves Universality. Let us take the principal maxim: Do No Harm.

Which country? Doesn’t matter.

Which profession? Doesn’t matter.

Which race? Doesn’t matter.

It is a universal moral precept across all cultures.

 Psychologists have discovered universal morals across different cultures. In the early decades of 20th century, psychologists devoted considerable time to research on moral character. In the 1920s, Congregational minister High Hartshorne and his colleague Mark May published a study in three large volumes. In this influential study they argued  ‘there is no such thing as character traits’. They concluded that a person’s character is more a function of their circumstances than than the trait of their personality. You behave according to your surroundings. They insisted that consistent patterns should not be expected among character traits because people’s behavior change based on their surroundings. Whether people behave honestly or dishonestly depend on their circumstances. This study discouraged any further research on character traits because scientific studies rely on consistent patterns.

  But such thinking received a fatal blow in recent years. A new generation of psychologists restarted research on character traits in the last few decades. American cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder (b.1945) did research on moral reasoning in the United States, Africa and India. He discussed his research in a book titled, Why Do Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology. He compares American society with Indian society.  He wrote, “In direct contrast to secular society in the United States, the discourse of autonomy and individualism is seemingly backgrounded in Hindu society, whereas the discourses of community and divinity are foregrounded, made salient and institutionalized. That does not mean that there is no personal experience of autonomy and individuality in India or no personal concern with those goods as essential to well-being. Instead, the themes of personal autonomy are often absorbed into the discourses of community and divinity.”

   In another book Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology, he described Hindu moral reasoning seen in Sati, an obsolete funeral custom practised mostly in India.

  “On September 4, 1987, Roop Kanwar, a beautiful eighteen-year-old college-educated Rajput woman, received national press coverage in India when she immolated herself in front of a large supportive crowd, with her dead husband resting in her lap. Immediately the scene of the event became a popular pilgrimage site.”

   “In the Hindu moral order the death of a husband has more than material significance, and its metaphysical meanings run deep. Traditional widows in India spend the balance of their lives absolving themselves of sin (fasting, praying, withdrawing from the world, reading holy texts).”

Such barbaric practice like Sati would made us cringe, but even behind it there is a moral worldview.

Elsewhere, Prof.Schweder wondered why many Hindu widows would not eat fish in Orissa, India. He found out, the Hindu widow thinks fish is a ‘hot’ food which will stimulate her sexual appetites and make her have sex with someone. This would offend the spirit of her dead husband and preventing her from reincarnating at a higher level.

In his book Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology, Richard A.Schweder writes, “The traditional Hindu moral code is duty-based and focused on social roles. The American moral code is rights-based and focused on individuals. Duty-based codes direct attention to the moral quality of individual action, to the fit between a specific action and the code of proper conduct (for example, Hindu dharma). Rights-based codes direct attention to the value of individual choice and appetites, tastes, and preferences that the individual chooses to pursue.”

Cross cultural researchers have found whether in the East or the West, there are underlying moral codes which influence human behavior. As shown above, In Indian system, many a widow thinks about her dead husband more than her own wishes, in American system, a person wants to pursue his individual choices as long as they do not violate others. The sense of the other is present in both systems.

American social psychologist Jonathan David Haidt did significant research on the psychology of morality. He contends, “We’re born to be righteous”. Based on the writings of Richard Shweder, he developed moral foundations theory. This theory postulates that there are universal moral foundations. Just as different cultures created many different cuisines based on the same five taste receptors on the tongue, they developed different moralities based on the same six moral foundations. They are







He said, we created many different cuisines based on the same five taste receptors on the tongue. Similarly, we developed different moral systems, but underneath we find the same six moral foundations. Not everyone subscribes to all these six. Liberals usually adhere to the first two while conservatives embrace all five.

Let us take Care and Harm.

Care: Across the world almost everybody thinks that unjustifiably harming other person is morally wrong. I said, almost because there will be some crackpots who say ‘no’ to every idea. But, most people think we should not harm other individuals. What do you mean by harm? People have different opinions on what constitutes harm, but nobody thinks that hurting other people is more moral than helping them. Most of us agree that it is immoral to hurt a fellow human being. That is a universal moral value.

Then Fairness and Cheating.

Fairness: We say, we should be fair to all people irrespective of their country, caste and creed. The movie Slumdog Millionaire appealed to millions of people around the world. In this movie we see Jamal. He is an orphan boy growing up in the slums of Mumbai. As a teen, he appears on the TV show, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ He amazes the show’s host with a series of consecutive correct answers. Question after question, Jamal surprises everyone with correct answers. The show’s host suspects of Jamal of cheating.

Jamal must be cheating. The host says, There is no way this poor little fellow could even come to a show like this, much less answer all my designed questions with correct answers.  How could a slumdog with no formal education become virtuoso in the show’s trivia? But the world audience sided with Jamal. People of the world wanted Jamal to win. Even a poor slumdog from Mumbai should be given a fair shot. That poor little boy deserves fairness like the child of a rich billionaire. Most of us believe in fairness. That’s a universal moral value.

Professor Haidt wrote in his book Righteous Mind, “I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to ‘do’ morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings. But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.”

Our nature is we are not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralitistic, critical and judgmental. He continues, “Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.”

Many atheists argue that reason guides us to morality. We don’t need God. But recent scientific studies show that we acquire moral intuitions long before we develop moral reasoning.

Human beings are universally designed to be moral! American mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1894 – 1964) noted that at the center of the universe is information. We can say, beside information, there is also morality at the center of our universe.

Both theists and atheists agree, we live in a moral universe.

We have seen there are universal moral values, like care and fairness.

These moral values are universal and also objective.

If Australia does not believe in them, they are still true.

If India does not believe in them, they are still true.

If China does not believe in them, they are still true.

In fact, even if the whole humanity does not believe in them, they are still true.

In other words, we are not source of objective moral values. They point us to God.

Every value has a Source

Objective moral values do exist.

Objective moral values should have a Source, who is God.

Every law comes from a law giver.

Objective moral laws do exist.

Objective moral laws could come only from an objective moral law giver, who is God.

Now, atheists say, Evolution gave us objective moral values. It cannot.

Evolution means change. Moral standards do not change.

You cannot say, unchanging moral laws came from change.

We don’t want to put our moral weight on natural selection. A million years from now, we might become an entirely different species. If we changed, our morality too would change. Something that will change cannot be called moral. If discrimination based on skin color is immoral today, it should be immoral even a million years from now. So, we should make Darwinian evolution the foundation of our moral standards. Darwinian evolution is change every moment.

If Darwinian evolution is not the source of our objective moral values, then there is only one alternative: God.

God created us in His image. That is why we are intuitively moralistic.

God’s moral standards do not change. He is the source of all objective moral values in the universe.

There are atheists who say, We the humans can create the values.

This coffee cup. What is its value?

I can say 100 Rupees.

I can say 70 Rupees.

I can say 50 Rupees.

I can also say 0 Rupees. It has no value. I can throw it in the trash bag.

I don’t want to put the value of my life in the hands of a human being. Human being can put some value or no value on my life. David Hume said, ‘It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’.

Reason does not tell you which is more valuable: the whole world or your finger or my life?

I heard about a professional boxer, Marcos Forestal. He was driving intoxicated when his BMW plowed head-on into a minivan. A pregnant mother of four children died in the crash. Forestall, who sustained only minor injuries came out of his damaged BMW and live streamed the crash scene. He said, ‘Look what happened to me, guys. A car crossed in front of me and look what happened to my car’.

      He was driving under the influence of alcohol and killed a pregnant woman, who is a mother of four children. Then said, ‘Oh, my poor car’.

What is more valuable? Life of a person or an automobile?

In a world without God, a powerful boxer or a powerful tyrant can set values or no values on things around them. When He created every human being in His image, only God did put a fixed value and worth on every human being.

So, can we be moral without God? The answer is no.

Morality is universal, objective and need fixed values. Only God can deliver them.

Paul Kattupalli MD

Physician and Christian apologist

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