Why Morality Doesn’t Need God

27 05 2010

For a few months now there has been a trial underway in select primary schools around New South Wales offering an ethics course as an alternative to scripture – or Special Religious Education, as it’s called. It’s a wonderful initiative, and I wholeheartedly support it. In fact, I’m on the waiting list to teach should the programme be approved by the NSW state government following the trial.

However, the trial hasn’t progressed without impediment, primarily coming from religious quarters. Some religious figures have seen the ethics course as a threat to the scripture classes, some even suggesting they’re losing students to the secular course. This is even after the organisers of the ethics trial made all their material freely available to the various SRE conveners should they wish to use it, nullifying the competition issue. Yet many scripture classes continue to provide ample colouring-in and singing activities, but are a little thin on actual ethics.

Last night a programme aired on SBS called Insight – a rare and wonderful show where representatives from various perspectives in an issue are put in a room and have a moderated debate – that dealt with the religious opposition to the ethics trial. The show was gruelling, but fascinating all the same. I actually reckon the children were the highlight – they were far more insightful and open minded than the religious adults who spoke.

The religious proponents posited all the regular arguments, including the veiled notion that one cannot teach ‘real’ ethics without religious backing. It’s this fallacy that I offered some thoughts on on the ABC’s discussion page, The Drum Unleashed. As you can see, it’s been up less than a day and there are already 264 comments. Unsurprisingly, there are some strong opinions on either side, though I’m buoyed by the upwelling of support for secular ethics from some quarters.

A couple of clarificatory points, though. I’m not interested in disproving the existence of god. Nor am I interested in converting people to atheism. The arguments against God have all been made, and they haven’t changed significantly for at least 100 years. If there are still some unconvinced, then I’m not going to try to batter their dogma head on. I’d rather offer alternatives to supernaturalism that people see as being viable and desirable instead of simply tearing down religion.

In fact, in some ways I support the notion of organised religion, although absent supernaturalism and dogma, and with added checks and balances. We need cultural institutions to propagate values, and atheism, being a negative thesis, doesn’t even attempt to build something positive like this. It’s this secular religion approach, I believe, that is what non-theists of all ilks should be aiming for. Hammering away at the faithful isn’t going to achieve much – building a better world and welcoming the faithful in is a much more powerful approach.




12 responses

27 05 2010
James Gray

There is something important about trying to develop an entire worldview, but there is also something important about disagreement. Religions tend to require too much agreement, but a great deal of agreement is necessary to develop a worldview. These two values seem to be at odds.

Almost all religions have been found to be dangerous including ones that are atheistic. (There are sorts of Buddhism that are devoid of supernatural beliefs.)

I agree that atheists could work on having a coherent worldview, but I’m not sure that religion is so great. Some sort of high-minded (atheist) “culture” involving rituals and stories might have something to offer, but I don’t see it as important as Joseph Campbell did.

27 05 2010
James Gray

I just remembered that I read about Religious Naturalism, which can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_naturalism

I’m not highly impressed with what is said there because it doesn’t seem to incorporate philosophy as well as I would like and sounds like it requires something like nature worship, even though the main idea sounds like religion devoid of the supernatural. If a religion is going to be successful, then both philosophers and people who don’t want to think will both have to get something out of the religion.

28 05 2010

Dear Tim

Hello again. Very generous comments above. But it doesn’t really account for the possibility that rationality itself might originate in the supernatural, as I argue below. If we’re not separate observers, then can’t our observations be disputed or even disregarded as influenced by that which we are observing?

Instead, science in particular appears to be founded on the presumption that we have an independent viewpoint for observing (hence all those controls on experiments, removing local variables).



28 05 2010
James Gray


It is possible that rationality originates in the supernatural, but lots of things might be explained in weird ways. UFO’s might be alien spaceships.

What is your argument that rationality comes from the supernatural? You said you were going to give an argument, but I don’t see it.

Right now there is a great deal going on in Philosophy of the Mind and the supernatural hasn’t made the cut. Searle has a very intuitive account of consciousness that explains how consciousness might come from the brain.

The fact that the brain has such a large influence on the mind is good evidence that the mind and brain are highly connected. The supernatural seems to be non-physical and it might not be able to interact with the physical at all. See this post from the Apple Eaters website on the supernatural: http://theappleeaters.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/miracles/

I have also wrote quite a bit on the mind and various worldviews of reality that are pretty relevant to the issue.

28 05 2010

Dear James

Hi. I read your reference, and it appears to refer solely to supernatural miracles. Instead, I’m arguing that rationality itself is supernatural. If rationality were to be exhausted by the biological, chemical, economic, social and circumstances in which we articulate it, then it doesn’t offer an independent perspective for examining those circumstances. Instead, rationality could be discounted by perjorative comments about one’s heredity, economic circumstances or social position, for example.

In particular, rationality must be independent of the biochemistry of the brain, in order to offer an explanation of its workings that is not ultimately determined by the processes and organs of the brain.

At its largest, rationality must originate outside of the physical universe or ‘Nature’, in order to provide an independent perspective on it. Thus, I suggest, rationality or transcendent ‘Reason’ must be ‘above-Nature’, ‘beyond-Nature’ or ‘supernatural’. And no amount of Buffy and X-Files episodes will convince me otherwise!

Our rationality originates not inside our heads where we process Reason, but independently of it. Reason resembles a TV signal, articulated by individual TV sets and yet not exhausted by them. You can destroy one TV set, without destroying the signal as articulated by other TV sets. Likewise, one can impair one’s ability to reason, by injuring one’s head, listening to one’s fears or by watching the Footy Show (or increase it through reading good philosophy blogs!) yet rationality originates independently of our ability to reason. Our capacity to reason is, instead, just so much of the transcendent, universal Reason as our brains can let in.

But perhaps you disagree?

28 05 2010
James Gray


Supernatural miracles are just as problematic as supernatural anything. We don’t know how these things can interact. Some philosophers think that there is something eternal about logic, but very few think there is something eternal about the human mind.

You are not really presenting an argument for supernatural reason. You are just saying that you like the idea. Give me an example where reason must be supernatural and tell me why all other possible explanations will fail. The supernatural is one of the most questionable of all sorts of things. We don’t want to believe in the supernatural unless it is absolutely necessary.

You should still take a look at what I have said about worldviews and probably the teapot argument against God as well. The teapot argument is really just a use of “occam’s razor,” which will apply to anything supernatural or strange. You can click on my name to go to my website. The first worldview post is at http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/worldviews-of-reality/

Although some philosophers think that logic requires something like Plato’s Forms, it isn’t clear that forms are “supernatural.” Many Christians took Plato’s arguments and his view of the forms and changed it into a theological worldview.

28 05 2010

Dear James

Hi. You haven’t addressed the truth or otherwise of my arguments. You’ve only indicated you don’t like the idea of the supernatural. Reason must be supernatural, in order to offer an independent measuring stick for calibrating the physical universe or ‘Nature’. As I stated above, without reason being supernatural, we can dismiss each other’s arguments on the basis of mere biological, social, economic etc circumstances. For example, we can say that the other person just think what he does because he belongs to a particular economic group. If rationality is not independent of our circumstances, then such personal attacks would be valid. No?

You refer to Occam’s Razor, as if it’s an argument against anything supernatural or ‘strange’ (too many X-Files episodes, maybe?). You are of course aware that William of Ockam was a medieval Franciscan friar and theologian?




28 05 2010
Simon Thomas

Hi Tim

Just wanted to say thank you for your excellent article here and at the ABC Network. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve linked to it (and briefly) discussed it on my own philosophy blog (there’s an excellent debate – “we’d be better off without religion?” – here that might be worth checking out, as well.)

All best wishes


28 05 2010
James Gray


An argument can’t be true or false. An argument could be well reasoned, valid, sound, etc. I didn’t even understand your argument, so I can’t criticize it. I need to know your premises and your conclusion to tell you why the argument doesn’t seem to work (if I disagree with it). So far I see no reason to think that reason must be supernatural.

You say that we can’t assess an argument apart from something biological or something like that. I still don’t know what that means. It is quite possible that we evolved good reasoning precisely because it is an advantage to do so.

Obviously the fact that 2+2=4 is true no matter what our biology is. If you want to argue that logic and mathematics are supernatural, then you are talking about something like Plato’s Forms, but I already mentioned that they might not be supernatural. I already wrote about this issue on my website, as I stated before.

Yes, Occam’s razor could be used against anything supernatural. We should reject supernatural beliefs unless the supernatural is the best explanation for a phenomenon. That doesn’t mean no strange things exist. It just means that we should only believe in strange entities when it is necessary to do so. Read my post on the teapot argument for more information.

5 06 2010

Dear James

Hi. You say ‘an argument can’t be true or false.’ Is that true? If you can’t understand that you’ve just asserted something as true, then it’s hardly surprising that you can’t understand anything else I’ve written.

Allow me to restate my argument for thinking that reasoning itself must be supernatural, given that you expressed difficulty in understanding it.

If rationality does not have a basis that is independent of our biological circumstances (e.g. our heredity), and our socio-economic circumstances (e.g. whether one of us is a millionaire), then I could simply dismiss your argument by saying “You say that because you are Caucasian”, or “You say that because you are rich.”

Instead, although rationality is expressed through our brains, it must have a basis that is independent of the circumstances in which it is expressed, in order to offer an independent and hence valid measuring stick for describing the world around us.

Further, rationality must originate independently of our whole physical universe, in order to provide an independent measuring stick for it. Otherwise, our rational conclusions could be dismissed as merely based upon factors such as circumstances.

I respectfully agree that the simplest explanation is superior. But atheism offers no independent explanation for anything at all, so far as it denies the existence of the supernatural, and hence an independent basis for concluding anything to be true or false at all.


5 06 2010
Tim Dean

Hi tomess. I think what James is referring to when he says “an argument can’t be true or false” is that, technically, the argument is only the framework that supports the premises. If the premises are true (in a valid deductive argument), then the conclusion must also be true – making the argument sound. But the ‘truth’ of the argument depends on the premises. But this is a technical point – and I think, in most conversations, it’s entirely valid (no pun intended) to say an argument can be true.

On to your argument… You are correct that if rationality is grounded in physical/biochemical processes then there is no “independent measuring stick” by which to judge its accuracy. I believe that to be true. But that doesn’t mean that rationality must be supernatural. It could be that we’re just stuck with ‘earthly’ rationality, and that’s it. As someone leaning towards pragmatism, this doesn’t overly concern me.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re stuck dismissing arguments “on the basis of mere biological, social, economic etc circumstances”. There might well be a way the world is, and reason might enable us to understand the way the world is in a non-contingent way. We may still be error-prone, but this doesn’t mean we need be sceptical about all claims made by reason.

Furthermore, positing that rationality is supernatural requires you to explain how it is that some other-worldly force can interact with our biochemistry and influence our thoughts. There has never been any evidence of such a link uncovered, as far as I know. Basically, positing supernatural reason carries with a lot of metaphysical baggage, and in the absence of any evidence to support the idea, I find it much more plausible to believe that reason is grounded in the natural world.

Not sure whether James would agree with me – we’ll see what his response is to your argument.

6 06 2010
James Gray

People might let incoherent statements such as “the argument is true” slide in casual conversations, but it is still incoherent. An argument is the reasoning used to believe something. A good argument can still have a false conclusion. I think a good argument can be made as to why we should disbelieve that aliens are visiting the earth, but maybe they are.

The statement “the argument is true” is probably supposed to mean “the conclusion is true.”

You should take a look at this post I wrote about logic and arguments: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/what-you-need-from-formal-logic/

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