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.