Over one hundred years ago, Nietzsche wrote the words “God is dead.” And philosophers the world over seemed to agree with the assessment. So what next? Can morality go on without God in our lives? While some people might believe that God is absolutely necessary for morals and ethics to exist, the author feels that this is in no real way essentially true . Ethics are beside God, and one cannot affect the other.
“God is Dead” in Context
Many people, hearing only that “God is dead” without any background in philosophy, take the expression quite literally that God is physically dead . Of course, there is no way that Nietzsche could have known this. His intention was allegorical – God’s death was his way of bluntly stating the loss of faith felt throughout Europe. Undoubtedly, he was correct in this decline in belief . But, according to Henry Veatch, Nietzsche also believed this death was a causal factor in the decline of European morality. Veatch says that Nietzsche, and later Sartre, felt that “the loss of faith in a moral order is in fact consequent upon the loss of faith in God” [Veatch: 180]. Whether or not Nietzsche truly felt this way, the fact remains that this view is incorrect.
In the Dostoyevky masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov”, the title character Ivan has been attributed with the phrase “If God is dead, all is permitted.” I say attributed, because while this paraphrase is more or less accurate, the words themselves are never spoken. This sentiment seems to echo the claims made by Nietzsche and Sartre, but is again inaccurate. The permissibility of anything is not due to God’s existence. Our moral code is founded upon something much more human (which should seem obvious if we realize how many atheists live moral lives). But again, I am stalling in getting to the point.
Morality not Founded on God, Part One
If we analyze the moral codes accepted by the majority of people in the world, we can probably boi lthem down to some version of either utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, or virtue ethics. None of these is in any way based upon God – and yet these are the systems people cite to justify their moral actions.
Utilitarianism, much like democracy, asserts that the best method is to do what will provide the most happiness for the largest number of people. This is in line with much of Christian thought, but not all of it. On one hand, we could say that this system would advocate the rich giving a portion of their income to charity because their loss in happiness is much less than what the needy would gain. But utilitarianism also advocates the idea that if both your father and a cancer researcher are drowning, you should save the cancer researcher – which seems an outright violation of the commandment to honor your father and mother.
The Categorical Imperative is similar to the Golden Rule (which is not a Christian idea, even though most people think that it is). With the CI, we assert that we should only act as if what we do would be adopted as the rule for all people to follow. This lines up with the most general Christian ideals against murder, theft, and lying, but so does almost every other moral code on Earth. And beyond these general principles, the similarity ends. The CI is set up so people have rules in order to get along with each other in society – it has no mention of God, and there is no widely accepted way to include God in the imperative.
Virtue ethics is the idea of Aristotle, and focuses on doing what is not in the extreme, but rather what we would call the mean. In some ways this is much like situation ethics, because their is no exact way to measure an extreme and the actiosn of a moral person are subjective to that individual in that particular time period. Being too brave is rash and being not brave enough is cowardly. As Goldilocks would say, we need to find the action that is “just right.” I believe many people follow this system subconsciously, and we cannot say that God is in any way a part of the system.
With these systems laid out, perhaps it is best we now examine what God has said and see how that system is working.
What Has God Said?
The very basic tenets of the Jewish and Christian faiths lie in the ten commandments handed down to Moses from God on Mount Sinai. But it seems our moral order has only a coincidentally connection to these commandments (which almost seem more like ten suggestions in the cavalier way we use them).
The rules against killing and stealing and sleeping around we are okay with, as mentioned above. We will return to that in a moment. But the parts about God Himself seem to have slipped our minds, our culture sees no wrong in wanting what our neighbor has (in fact, we put faith in the culture of bigger is better). We honor our parents to a point, but feel that dumping them in retirement homes to die and rot unnoticed for a week is acceptable. So our batting average with the commandments isn’t anything Major League.
Even amongst the rules we do follow, we have made exceptions for them. Killing is bad, but wars can be justified and self-defense is alright. Stealing is wrong, but most of us think of Robin Hood as a moral guy. Lying is wrong, but fibbing is okay. Very important religious men like to bend the rules, it’s not just the rabble. There is no one who believes that God’s ten commandments are literally worth following.
Morality Not Founded on God, Part Two
We have already shown that moral codes can be developed without God, and almost always are. But we can take that one step further – not only can morality be determined without God, but morality itself precedes God and He is bound by their rules, not them by Him.
A basic philosophical truism is that God does something because it is good – not that something is good because God said so. Let’s show both halves of this coin.
The first half (good precedes God) is evident in the moral codes we mentioned above. Without taking God into account, morals were established. And these morals were necessary in order to maintain a society because without these rules we would live in a constant state of nature, which is not conducive to human life.
God can only declare good what we already know to be good (so He simply agrees with us rather than commands us). If God says murder is bad, it is not bad because God said this. Take the reverse: God suddenly declares murder is good. Well, if we want to serve God we would have to adopt murder as our moral code. And this only leads away from civilization into the wilderness unti lthe species ceases to exist. God saying this was good would not (from a human perspective) make any sense. No priest or pope would have the chutzpah to say God declaring thievery good would make it so.
Ivan Karamazov is wrong. Nietzsche and Sartre, according to Veatch, were wrong. God can be dead and our society would go on with little or no difference as far as morals are concerned. Loss of faith would not make us think murder was any less heinous. The only way murder is advantageous is when only the minority hold the view that it is acceptable. Ivan may think his murder is permitted, but this is only true in his mind. God’s absence has not made his actions any less vile in the eyes of his peers.
There is a moral order to the universe, but this is trancendent of God, not consequent from Him.
 The argument could be made by a theist that without God, there is no universe. And without a universe, no ethics. While this is true, that is not at all the point at hand. In the currently existing universe, does God affect morals? Even the theist must concede He does not.
 A memorable Kids in the Hall sketch asserted this very thing. They also claimed He was very small.
Veatch, Henry B. Rational Man. Indiana University Press, 1962.