Saturday, November 10, 2012

Goodness Without God?

The question is whether we accept reality as pure matter or as the expression of a meaning that refers to us; whether we invent values or must find them. On our answer depends the kind of freedom of which we must speak, for two completely different freedoms, two completely different fundamental attitudes toward life, are involved here.
Principles of Catholic Theology, 72

Reflection – This is a very penetrating and simply put expression of the fundamental modern controversy. Do we invent reality, or is reality a given? Do we invent the moral law, or do we discover it? Is freedom to be the exercise of our wholly autonomous self-will imposing our ego upon a dead universe, or is freedom something more like a quest, an adventure, a bold setting out into an already existing meaning and truth?
It seems to me that it is one or the other. The truth is out there, or there is no truth except what we impose by our own strength. We have to be as clear about this as we can be in our minds. And it does come down to the question of God. If there is no God, how can there be a pre-existing moral law? Law must come from a law-giver.

When we speak of the laws of nature, we are using the word analogically; we simply mean that physical objects do the same sorts of things in the same sorts of conditions in a predictable fashion that we can utilize for technological advancement. There are no ‘laws’ of nature in the sense that there are laws of human conduct. If there is a true moral law, there is a true moral Lawgiver.

People will argue that you can be good without God, that lots of irreligious people manage to live good moral lives. It would be a fool’s game to dispute that. I would say though, that without God the word goodness becomes emptied of meaning. If there is no God, what is this goodness of which you speak?

Where does it come from? What is its rational basis? It really is true that without God all things are permitted. Civil society may choose to punish certain behaviors that violate the social order, but that cannot be the basis of what we mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior. Do we really want to concede to the State the power to define morality?

Nor can it be morality by social consensus—like we all agree that adulterers are vile or something. Social consensus changes, and there are always minority opinions about virtually anything. Pedophilia has it defenders even now, as does incest, as does bestiality. Lots of people think it is just fine to lie and steal. We cannot have a rational moral theory based on social consensus, and it is against common sense to base it on civil and criminal law.

What else is left? Without a God who is the fashioner of reality and its ultimate adjudicator, there is no such thing as a moral law. And if there is no such thing as a moral law, then all things are permitted. And if all things are permitted, the ruthless and the powerful will continue to have their way with the rest of us. God and God alone provides a way out from this quandary.

Of course some will argue that this delivers us over to an even more debasing slavery to an even more ruthless and powerful being, except this time it is for all eternity and there’s no escape. This is why we cannot live a theistic life without a sense of God’s mercy and tender love. If this all-powerful all-good God who does indeed impose upon us the demnads of the moral law is not also all-merciful and all-compassionate, then we are indeed in a pickle. But He is, and so we are not so tragic. We are OK, really.

More than OK, we are free, then, to embark on the high adventure of reality, of good and evil, and to prevail with God’s help in the epic of life and its glorious challenge.


  1. Good analysis, Fr. Denis. I would add that the laws of physics, for example, are indeed laws, in that there is more to them than the same things happening over and over again. They are true by virtue of the way reality is. This, of course, does not in any way diminish the necessity of a Lawgiver.

    1. Thanks, Fr. Michael! I defer to your philosophical acumen. When I wrote this early this morning I was indeed aware that I was not being super precise on that point... the perils of philosophical blogging!


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