I love a good debate. You all know that. Debating questions of religion and God are a fun diversion for me, in the way, say, playing Halo might be great entertainment for you.
On occasion, having a debate with no end in sight can prove fun, like when you’re at a concert and the band jams on your favorite song for an extended 10 minutes. Then again, sometimes you just want to hear the song and have the band move on.
One of the surest ways to fall into the trap of a never-ending argument (and debates quickly devolve into arguments when they have no definitive endpoint) is to never establish your initial premises. So often, a semantic quibble or hypothetical analogy hijacks the conversation, sometimes without you ever knowing what was being debated in the first place.
Recently, I was asked my opinion on a debate topic, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
Here is the topic of debate (as it was being had in a college course): Can you have morality without Religion?
You’ve heard this question, you’ve witnessed this debate. It can come in many forms, though most commonly it is a topic that arises when people want to argue which has done the greatest harm in history, religion or atheism. These debates inevitably crumble into discussions of how many people died in which war or genocide and whether or not Hitler/Stalin/Kermit the Frog was an atheist (ultimately this misses the greater point that all of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities were the result of global actions taken by thousands of people in back rooms and behind doors).
This debate is one that inevitably goes around in circles and only ends because the participants get fed up.
If, by saying morality cannot exist without religion, you merely mean that religion is the only effective means of propagating and enforcing morality, then you have made no larger claim about God (you are discussing completely natural events). However, this view is demonstratively false. While you may assert that morality as we know it originated in religious belief and would not exist if it had not been for religion, moral atheists/agnostics (yes, they do exist) prove that morality can be taught and spread without a religious basis. Even if you wish to hold the tenuous position that all morality came out of religion, when an atheist teaches his or her child to behave morally without relying on religious authority, they have proven that morality can be spread without religion.
The reason this debate is such a frustrating one to have is because the initial topic is a red herring. You think you’re arguing whether or not morality exists without religion, but in fact what you are really debating is, “Can morality exist without God?” By extension, the debate you’re truly having is, “Does God exist?” When the question is framed as “Can morality exist without Religion?”, it obfuscates the true nature of the debate and it gives the Naysayers (“Morality cannot exist without religion”) a hidden advantage.
If you claim that all morality comes from religion, you are either arguing that morality comes from God, or you are making no argument at all, for you can no more answer which came first, morality or religion, than you can answer which of the chicken or the egg came first (that is to say, there is a correct answer, as one must have come first, but the pursuit of the answer serves only academic interest and does not reveal any deeper truth about God or the lack of a god).
(For the record, morals came first.)
Instead of establishing the debate on a false premise (Morality requires religion), we must state what is truly meant: Morality requires God.
And with this understanding, the debate falls apart. Any attempt to answer the question assumes the existence of God, and that is the very thing we are debating. If I engage the false face of this debate (“Morality cannot exist without Religion/God?”), I would be overlooking the true first premise of the debate (“God exists”), essentially conceding a point that I absolutely refuse to concede. Every argument you make in favor of this assertion will be predicated on God’s existence, which requires that I either except that premise in order to address your point (and thus handicap my actual point of view), or maintain my own atheism and always remain outside your argument’s sphere, leaving us swinging at each other like two boxers who haven’t left their corners.
This debate has no where to go but down.
The only question we’re left with is which is preferable, morality with or without God. That is to say, would you prefer to imagine an existence where people are capable of morality without an outside force, or is it more comforting to imagine that without God’s intercession, humanity would be irredeemably immoral? If you prefer the latter, what does that say about your own murderous tendencies? Are you always just one Dark Night of the Soul away from becoming a serial rapist? Personally, I find comfort in knowing that our species evolved morality as a way of surviving and thriving as a social animal. It means that morality isn’t the arbitrary whim of a capricious Supreme Being and it means that our base nature, though selfish, is not truly evil.
Either way, there is no debate. To debate this topic is to debate the existence of God, and though that is one of my favorite pastimes, it’s the sort of thing even your most passionate Christian would rather avoid on a day to day basis.
Before I leave the topic, though, I do want to engage it one more time at face value (going against everything I just said). When you make the argument, Morality requires Religion/God, you must then go further and state which God. Christian or Islamic, Monotheistic or Polytheistic, Fundamentalist or Liberal? And which morality: Old or New Testament? Sunni or Shia? Must we dismiss the morality of god’s like Bacchus or Eros?
If we accept that morality came from religion (and, again, I do not), it would clearly be false to claim that your monotheistic religion (whether it be Christianity, Islam or Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) was the first religion. Even Judaism is predated by a great many religions, mostly polytheistic. If anything, the argument that morality comes from religion (assuming that morality is a good thing) is likely an argument against your particular religion, since the common morality we all acknowledge existed long before the formation of any currently practiced religions (unless you’re worshiping Pharaohs).
In short, when you assert the premise “Morality cannot exist without religion,” you are not simply saying “God exists,” you are saying, “My God exists.” Which is to say, you’ve already come to your conclusion before the debate has begun.
So, by all means, debate God, debate morality, debate which is better, Vanilla or Chocolate (trick question, it’s Mint Chocolate Chip), but don’t waste my time claiming to want an open discussion of ideas when all you really want is for everyone to agree that your God can beat up anyone else’s God.
For the record, Kermit’s an Agnostic