A Mormon and an Atheist Debate: Is God Required for Morality?

The first installment in a debate series between a devout Mormon and young atheist.

It doesn’t get much different than a Mormon and an atheist — so that’s precisely who we have engaging in a monthly debate on matters of spirituality.

Donna Carol Voss is a Berkley grad, stay-at-home mom, former pagan and devout Mormon. W Cassity-Guilliom grew up with interfaith parents and landed as an irreligious apatheist, which evolved into atheism and skepticism with education.

 In this first installment, the two debate the question of whether humans can develop morality apart from the existence of God.

*   *   *

Donna Carol Voss:

Morality is knowing the difference between right and wrong. People who have never heard of God or Jesus or Moses know the difference between right and wrong, but it is inherited morality that began with a biblical God.

European socialized medicine promotes itself as so much less expensive than our healthcare system here, but meanwhile leverages the United State’s enormous monetary investments in pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques without taking on its own risk of investment. Similarly, other allied countries can afford to have smaller militaries because they know we have their back if anything real goes down.

Without [God] as a reference point, how would humans ever have learned the sanctity of life? 

Morality may indeed exist apart from God today, but its origin must be located in him or it makes no sense. Universal right and wrong requires a universal mind and a universal set of commandments. It’s interesting that the Golden Rule is found as a core principal of every major religion.

Without God-given (i.e., absolute) morality, it would be wrong to kill only one of our own group. It would be expedient to kill a member of another group, especially if it benefitted our group in some way.

Even the concept that human life is precious arises from God telling us we are his children, that we are precious to him. Without him as a reference point, how would humans ever have learned the sanctity of life? 


W Cassity-Guilliom:

Imagine a lifeless planet, like Pluto. If one were to smash an asteroid into it, would anything immoral have been done? Of course not — maybe something aesthetically displeasing, but not immoral. We recognize this immediately because morality is solely about the wellbeing of experience and encompasses every action related to it and nothing unrelated to it. Creatures with brains are capable of thought and experience; they are sentient. Without sentient creatures, there is no morality, as on the frozen surface of Pluto. Compassion and empathy have evolved within social animals, which allows us to connect with and care about the experiences other animals have.

A thought experiment: reality is as it currently is, except we know for certain Loki is the one real god. Unfortunately he’s something of a malevolent rascal who doesn’t care much for humans. If morality were based in divinity, then Loki’s morality would be the absolute morality, as Christians believe to be the case for Yahweh.

The consistency of the godless morality I explained comes from its basis on empirical facts about reality.

In that circumstance, the religious morality model, also known as Divine Command Theory, would dictate that killing one another is not wrong or right since Loki doesn’t care one way or the other about it. My model of morality would dictate it’s still wrong as it still causes harm to the experiences of sentient creatures.

Another thought experiment: reality is as it currently is, except we know for certain no gods are real. Divine Command Theory is completely incoherent in this exercise and cannot make any predictions about what morality is. However, sentient creatures continue having experiences and affecting one another’s experiences, so the godless morality applies just as well as it would if Loki or Yahweh existed, regardless of their opinions about morality.

The consistency of the godless morality I explained comes from its basis on empirical facts about reality. While Divine Command Theory is rooted in the supposed opinions of a sentient being, as told to us by other humans, godless morality is rooted in the actual experiences that real beings really have.


Donna Carol Voss:

Without sentient creatures there is no morality? I would have to agree with that. Rocks and rills are neither moral nor immoral.

Compassion and empathy have evolved within social animals? I’m not sure that makes logical sense to me. I’ve learned the hard way from adopting attachment-disordered kids that empathy is rooted in early childhood experiences. We all have the same evolutionary basis as human beings, but some of us have empathy (a conscience) and some of us don’t — the most extreme examples of which are sociopaths who are incapable of caring about anyone else’s feelings.

It’s true that humans incapable of empathy are very maladaptive, but tremendous empathy can be experienced by immoral people, like Godfather Michael Corleone who loves his family, but kills his sister’s husband for business. So I don’t see a direct correlation between empathy and morality.

Your thought experiments are thought provoking, but you’ve defined one parameter that doesn’t exist in reality: we cannot know for certain anything about God — whether Loki is the one true god, whether there are any true gods, whether Yahweh is it.

When someone else’s wellbeing threatens my own, am I allowed to maximize my wellbeing at their expense?

To know something for certain means to be able to prove it, and no proof exists or ever will exist in religion; it’s all faith, a hope for things unseen, yet experienced by an inner sense. Without proof, it’s all just conjecture anyway. Belief is the scaffolding we use to reach Absolute Truth, but we’ll never get there in this life.

If my morality is to focus only on the wellbeing of experience, whose wellbeing do I include? Life is a complex web of competing wellbeings. If a mother kills her ex-husband to prevent him from sexually abusing their son after the ex-husband is given legal custody by a court, is that moral or immoral? If the father is allowed unsupervised visitation with his son, how is the son’s wellbeing protected?

My wellbeing and that of those I love will always carry more weight than that of strangers. When someone else’s wellbeing threatens my own, am I allowed to maximize my wellbeing at their expense?

I think that only a God who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves gives us the framework for maximizing all of our wellbeings at the same time. We will take turns winning and losing because we are all beholden to a standard above us and not a standard within us, which can be modified according to what we need and want in the moment.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

With the questions in your response, we’ve moved past the first principle of godless morality — from its basis in the experiences of sentient creatures to using it in conflict resolution.

Here the godless morality system trumps the religious model in several ways:

Change is encouraged as new evidence is brought to bear about the reality of experiences. Centuries ago, there was a school of thought that all non-human animals were not sentient, and we’ve since learned that’s not the case. This new evidence should logically make no difference in Divine Command Theory, because only the opinion of god dictates right and wrong, but it makes all the difference in godless morality. 

When there are many ways to equally improve and maintain wellbeing, we become more accepting of different practices.

Results-driven rather than piety-driven goals exemplify the right motive and leave the wrong motive in the dust. Those who want to please their god are pressured to act differently in certain circumstances than those who want to improve the lives of others. It seems we subconsciously recognize this fact to some extent because the degree to which these two motives diverge is the degree to which people are viewed as morally insane, like Andrea Yates, and the degree to which they converge is the degree to which we applaud those individuals, like the Dalai Lama.

 Multiple right answers allow for diversity in the moral landscape. When there are many ways to equally improve and maintain wellbeing, we become more accepting of different practices. But when there’s only One True God and his Absolute Moral Commandments, any dissent is impiety.


Donna Carol Voss:

Atheism assumes that humans and would-be gods are at cross-purposes. The deepest truth of religion is that because we are created in the likeness of God, our wellbeing and his are indistinguishable.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

Gods, whether their presence, absence, or commandments, are not relevant to morality. Morality exists where sentient beings are concerned and nowhere else.

This piece was originally published at the Original Thinking on 21st Century Living blog.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

  • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

    A former pagan — now a devout polytheist, i.e., a Mormon — is debating an atheist.
    Were all the millions of monotheists unavailable for comment?

  • Ryan M.

    A question for each side of the debate. Firstly, to DCV: your claim that we can never know anything with certainty about God completely undermines your claim that morality needs to have an objective reference point. If we don’t know what the reference point is like, then we can’t anchor our morality there. As a Christian, I believe that we can know exactly what God is like in certain respects; we can know what he has told us about himself through revelation, the Old Testament and the New. However, if you don’t believe that these things can be known for certain, how do you know that your morality is not in conflict with what God is actually like?

    As for WCG, by what objective standard can you actually state that negative experience is “bad” or that positive experience is “good” in a moral sense? What about situations in which the negative experience of one sentient being is the cause of the positive experience of another sentient being? Presumably you err towards the negative being weighted more heavily than the positive, but on what grounds do you do so? It seems intuitive that negative is bad and positive is good, but a lot of things that are wrong seem intuitive; after all, it seems intuitive that the ground you’re standing on is more stuff than it is empty space, when in reality it’s a lot of very small protons, neutrons and electrons in what is really mostly empty space. In summary, on what basis do you prioritise anchoring godless morality in maximising positive experience/minimising negative experience rather than, say, pragmatic prioritisation of survival and reproduction of the human species or the advancement of one’s own “tribe” ahead of those outside of the “tribe”?

    • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

      by what objective standard can you actually state that negative experience is “bad” or that positive experience is “good” in a moral sense?

      You’re asking me to objectively justify the definition of a word, but all word definitions are arbitrary. The contention you bring can equally be brought to physics terms, but it doesn’t change reality. I’ll put it this way: even if we magically swapped the commonly understood meaning of the word “good” and the word “bad”, then people with compassion and empathy would simply try to act as “bad” as possible.

      In summary, on what basis do you prioritise anchoring godless morality in maximising positive experience/minimising negative experience rather than, say, pragmatic prioritisation of survival and reproduction of the human species or the advancement of one’s own “tribe” ahead of those outside of the “tribe”?

      Keeping in mind that this question still consists of asking me to justify my definition: the other two circumstances you mention exist in reality and there are already words to describe them: social darwinism and tribalism. The reason I say the actions that maximize positive experience/minimize negative experience are morally good is because the history of the word morality contains a common thread of compassion, so others are most likely to understand when I use the mouthvibration “morality” to describe actions relating to compassion and experiences.

      What about situations in which the negative experience of one sentient being is the cause of the positive experience of another sentient being?

      There are many such situations with relevant differences. I assume you’re not solely asking me how I would describe these situations using my morality system, but rather you want me to make prescriptions about how people should act in them? It depends entirely on the circumstances.

      When a person chooses to donate blood they get hurt by a needle and maybe feel woozy for a bit: they get a bad experience, but they also feel good about themselves and proud to have altruistically helped someone out: a good experience. The eventual recipient of their blood gets possibly life-saving treatment: the extension of the life they have/treatment of their current poor health state, giving them the opportunity to keep having good experiences in the future, preventing their death from causing pain to their loved ones, and also preventing them from being forced to die when they didn’t want to (this last one, under my definitions, is not deduced from morality but from ethics). <— this is how my moral system describes this situation. As for moral prescriptions, I would say the good outweighs the bad for both individuals involved and that people should donate blood when they can. In fact this situation is a lot like many moral situations modern people face; an opportunity to do a great deal of good at little or no cost to oneself.

      In other situations the circumstances are different. The morally relevant differences are who is involved, how their experiences are affected, and to what degree, and my belief about what people should do will change depending on those differences and others relating to ethics.

  • allinthistogether

    We are all, believers and atheists and agnostics, imperfect in our knowledge and understanding. We learn morality from passed down documentation (none of which has actually been proven to have been revealed by a divinity – thus the function of religious faith), from acculturation/education and from our own experience. As we grow up most of us learn to discern good and evil for ourselves, but still imperfectly.

    Morality is both an evolutionary/cultural/religious construct and a personal choice. Those who make it a high priority to treat others with love and respect, and as beings of equal value to ourselves (or to within in the 1/nth degree?) tend to have a higher level of humane morality than do those who make it less of a priority. And because there is no proof that there is one or more gods, we are far better off committing ourselves to developing a morality that is based on the sensible reality and the conviction that we need to take care of each other, rather than on a potential God.