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Christianity, God, Morality and ethics, Panentheism

Morality and God: Do good and evil exist objectively?

I recently watched a debate between the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and the atheist philosopher Sam Harris, on the subject of whether good and evil can exist without God. It was an interesting debate, and if you can spare a couple of hours I would recommend watching it. I have embedded the video at the bottom of this article.

I thought it might be helpful to communicate my own views on this subject. Those of you who are familiar with my philosophical outlook will know that I am a panentheist (I believe the world is in God but God is more than the world), and also that I believe God permeates the entire cosmos and animates all action; including human action, the movement of planets, the movement of cells, and all other action.

Some obvious questions arise when one considers morality in terms of my world view, outlined above. If God is doing everything, is there free will? Do human beings have responsibility? By what standards should we measure good and evil?

In order to answer these questions, I first need to explain the way in which I believe reality has two separate layers or dimensions. These might be described as the God dimension and the creaturely dimension. I believe God has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, which means all that exists is known by God and experienced by God in any given moment. God has a universal perspective. The creaturely dimension is much narrower. Human beings have an experience of reality that is limited and partial. Our window of experience allows us to perceive a small part of the whole, in a way analogous to seeing certain colours in a spectrum.

Because God is everywhere, there is not an atom in the universe that is separate from Him. Because of this, it makes no sense to talk of freedom from God, or of free will. Clearly, if all is God, then all action is God’s action. In the creaturely dimension, we have the experience that we act independently of God, but this doesn’t mean that in reality we are separate. When I raise my arm or nod my head, it is I who am doing this in the creaturely dimension, but it is God who is doing it in the ultimate dimension.

What evidence do I have that suggests all action is God’s action? I would point to the fact that all activity is coordinated. Within the human body, for instance, there are millions of complex interactions working in harmony. This means that something must be able to coordinate what is going on in my heart, brain, and foot, all at the same time. That something is God. More evidence that God is in control is that we grow from nothing into human beings. We never make a decision to grow from a baby to a child to an adult; something is clearly causing this process to happen. For me, scientific ideas like ‘genetics’ and ‘evolution’ do not really explain this process of growth – there is clearly a power that grows us from babies into adults. That power is God.

I could present further arguments that all action is God’s action, and I do so elsewhere on this blog and in my book. But if you have had no insight into God’s existence – no experience or revelation of God’s reality – then the likelihood is that you will disregard any argument that implies God’s existence, however logical that argument may be. It is a shame when people are closed-minded in this way, but the fact is that if God doesn’t choose to reveal Himself to people then they will never believe. I have to accept that.

Returning to our discussion of morality, an important question remains. Even though all action is God’s action, in the creaturely dimension we still have the illusion of free will, and we therefore have choices and decisions to make. How do we decide what is good and evil; what is right and wrong?

Christians might argue that the Bible is the supreme revelation of God’s moral direction for mankind. But the problem with this idea, from my perspective, is that God has created all books (including the Qur’an and other holy books), so what makes the ideas expressed in one holy book more true than those expressed in the others?  It is possible to argue that many different scriptures that contradict one another are divinely revealed, so it is impossible to know which one we should regard as the absolute truth.

So we cannot realistically say that the Bible is the supreme guide for moral action on this planet. Where else are we to look? From my perspective, this is problematic. It would seem that without moral guidance, we are living in a world where ‘anything goes’. It is important to note, however, that it is not actually the case that anything goes. Only God’s will goes. I have to admit that God includes rape, murder, torture, and other horrors as part of His action in the world. It may seem illogical for God to be involved with these things, but I believe that He has good reasons, as outlined in my The Reason Why We Suffer post. In essence, we are made to suffer because God Himself suffers.

So it is not in fact the case that anything goes, but rather that everything is an expression of God’s will. But it is also true that along with the illusion of free will we have the illusion of decision making and responsibility. We seem to live in societies, and we seem to be affected by the actions of others. There is nothing wrong, then, in creating laws that protect people’s wellbeing. In the absence of objective morality, this is a difficult, subjective process. It might involve prayer (that God guides us towards right action), and laws that aim to achieve the greatest happiness for everyone. There will of course be difficult moral decisions to make, and we must rely on God to guide us through these, always attempting to do what we feel is best in any given situation.  Our decisions regarding what is best will have to be based on intuition, and compassion, which we must hope that God will grant us.

In summary, then, the realisation that God exists, and is in all things, creates a problem for moral discussion. The problem is that if we are not really in control, then how do we make decisions about right action? The answer in the dimension of ultimate reality is that God will take care of this. The answer in human terms is that we must struggle to do what we believe is right, all the while acknowledging that God is the guiding force in our decisions.

About Steven Colborne

Philosopher and author from Oxford, England.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Morality and God: Do good and evil exist objectively?

  1. then the likelihood is that you will disregard any argument that implies God’s existence, however logical that argument may be

    I gotta say, I usually like what you have to say. It is quite interesting and strange. This I very much do not like. You imply that atheists simply disregard good logical arguments for the existence of god. I am not closed minded, I am not disregarding any good arguments for the existence of God, I just haven’t found any yet. I’ve been looking (for example I’m reading 2 different apologetics books right now and blogging about them) and so far everything I have found is riddled with logical fallacies. I’m sorry if I’m reading too much into it but this line really bothered me.

    For me, scientific ideas like ‘genetics’ and ‘evolution’ do not really explain this process of growth – there is clearly a power that grows us from babies into adults. That power is God.

    this is just god of the gaps, no?

    Posted by Hausdorff | April 2, 2012, 5:19 pm
    • Hi Hausdorff. I apologise for any offense caused, I wasn’t intending to accuse open-minded atheists of being closed-minded. The point is just that there is no persuading some people. I present what I believe are good arguments, and you say that they are not good arguments. Again, it’s a subjective thing. I love the fact that you are willing to read apologetics, and I hope that somewhere along the line God reveals Himself to you in some way. Otherwise, I perfectly understand that you don’t believe in God.

      In answer to your second point, I believe the gaps point to God in a very real way!

      Posted by Steven | April 2, 2012, 7:05 pm
  2. Sorry for being a little ranty this morning, and you are right, there are an awful lot of people who are completely closed minded. And yeah, I do not find your arguments particularly convincing, although I do find them very interesting, and I also haven’t been reading for very long so I haven’t seen a lot of it.

    now, on to the more interesting thing here, you said that yes, the gaps do point to God. Which is a very interesting idea because I have always thought of that as a weakness in an argument. I’m wondering if we might mean slightly different things. The way I am thinking about God of the gaps, is when there is a gap in scientific understanding, something that we don’t know how it works, and we say God must be doing that. The problem there is that if we later figure out how it works, where does that leave God? Is he no longer necessary? Does god still do it and we just know how he does it now? If that is the case did we need a gap in the first place? If you do believe in a god of the gaps, what would you say to someone from a thousand (or a million) years into the future who could likely fill any gap we have now? flip it around, what would you say to someone from the distant past whose god lives in gaps we have since filled?

    This seems like a weakness to me, although maybe it isn’t if I were to think about it from a different angle. Any thoughts on the ramble of a paragraph?

    BTW, I also thought I would add that I really like the idea of a God who does what he does and when we do science we are just figuring out how God does it. I don’t believe in such a God, but I do think it is a cool and reasonable idea.

    Posted by Hausdorff | April 2, 2012, 7:47 pm
    • Well, I would say that even if scientists come up with a theory about how something works, that doesn’t dismiss the the fact that God is doing it. There might be a scientific understanding of why my heart is beating, but you could never convince me that God isn’t doing it (or if you did convince me that would be God giving me my new conviction – I was once an atheist so I know that God can make me or anyone else believe anything).

      I don’t think science has filled any gaps in terms of my understanding of God. I don’t think there is any science that persuades me not to believe in the God I believe in.

      I don’t believe in Deism by the way – that is to say I don’t believe God created the universe in the beginning and now allows it to unravel according to certain rules. I have a much more “present moment” understanding of how God acts, as you have probably gathered from reading a few of my posts. I don’t believe any atom exists without God holding it in being. God is making everything happen, including thoughts and actions (including disbelieving thoughts and actions), and God is more powerful than words can adequately capture!

      Hopefully that has answered some of your points.

      Posted by Steven | April 2, 2012, 8:18 pm
  3. I didn’t realize you used to be an atheist, I’m really curious about what brought you to your current thinking from there. It seems like no God existing is quite a long way away from God is in complete control of everything. I’m curious how you made that journey. I imagine it could too long to put a proper answer in a comment, if so I for one would be interested in a post about it.

    Posted by Hausdorff | April 3, 2012, 4:45 pm
    • Thanks for your curiosity, and for your suggestion that I could write a blog post about how I came to my beliefs. I think that’s a good idea, I will give it some thought. For a comprehensive insight into my “journey” you would have to read my book.

      Posted by Steven | April 3, 2012, 5:07 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: the shaming animosity of “my god can beat up your god” « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality - April 4, 2012

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