|date:||Mon, Mar 2, 2015 at 3:47 PM|
|subject:||Religion or morality: Which comes first?|
Recently, Roy Moore, chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court, told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, “Our rights, contained in the Bill of Rights, do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.”
Cuomo replied, “Our rights do not come from God. That’s your faith. That’s my faith. But that’s not our country.”
Shortly after, Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writing in Commentary, defended Judge Moore’s view as well within the mainstream of our political history. So far, so good. The idea that certain of our rights are conferred on us by God was a staple of much of the 17th- and 18th-century political thought that informed the work of the Founders.
But then Wehner makes a huge leap from an easily documented claim about our political history to a sweeping claim about the very foundations of morality in general. “Absent a Creator,” he asks rhetorically, “what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism?”
I’ve never understood the intellectual and moral security that people find in the view, however widely held, that “absent a Creator” morality has no basis. The first person to suggest otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, was Socrates in a short Platonic dialogue devoted to this very topic. At the outset, Socrates’ partner in the conversation is absolutely certain, like Wehner, that it’s God who determines which of our actions are morally right and which morally wrong.
But Socrates points out that there are at least two ways to understand that claim. On the one hand, it could be just God’s say-so that makes anything right or wrong. On this version of the story, actions have no inherent moral qualities, but only those that God assigns to them. Or it could be that actions have moral qualities independent of God’s say-so, and it’s their inherent moral qualities, not God’s decrees, that show us what we ought to do or forbear.
I don’t think many people would accept the “God’s say-so” story if they thought about it at all. If we take that story seriously, we don’t live in what to most of us would be a moral universe. Rather, we live in a “might-makes-right” universe because the only reason we’d have to do what God commands is that He has the power to cast us into an unspeakably miserable eternity if we don’t.
In fact, contrary to Wehner, most of us don’t derive our moral beliefs from our religious beliefs, but do exactly the opposite, convinced apparently that some actions are just inherently right or wrong. That’s crystal clear when people like President Obama say, without a murmur of dissent outside the ranks of the beheaders and enslavers, that no god would tell anybody to behead innocent journalists and aid workers or rape and sell 13-year-old girls into slavery.
And how do we know this? Because we’re as certain as we are of anything that such actions are too hideously immoral to find favor with any deity worthy of our devotion. In other words, it’s our idea of God that has to conform to our moral beliefs, not the other way around.
If we believe, then, that actions are inherently right or wrong, independent of God’s say-so, we have to figure out the moral terrain for ourselves. In some cases, the morality of some act, like burning people alive, is about as close to self-evident as anything could be.
But what those horrendous cases show is that even in ordinary life, it’s not our religious beliefs that are doing the moral work. The religious beliefs that we appeal to in daily life are relevant only because they’ve met the moral standards we measure them against and have arrived at on other grounds.
Wehner notwithstanding, we’re not totally helpless about what those other grounds could be. Some of humanity’s most powerful minds, beginning with Socrates, have thought about them deeply.
So while the belief that some rights are God-given is an interesting feature of our political history, it’s much less obvious that theism is an indispensable ahistorical foundation of any of our rights or of morality generally.