Video version of this available here.
Some theists have argued that atheists lack morality, because objective morality can only come from a deity like Zeus (supposedly). Atheists might act like they are moral, but really they are selfish and would do awful things if they could get away with it. Only the arbitrary rules their god(s) has given them are objective, from which they derive their moral realism.
Let’s grant for a moment that Zeus is real, sits atop Mount Olympus, and has rules that we must follow in life or we will go to the underworld when we die. A follower of Zeus might claim that this set of rules is objective, and constitutes moral realism. What makes their version of moral realism more real than my version of moral realism?
In what way is this any more or less arbitrary than when a human says ‘utilitarianism is the best code of ethics because it focuses on felt positive and negative felt experience, which are the only things a sentient mind can actually care about intrinsically’?
A god, if one exists, is just another being. That they demand we do something does not in itself make it objectively good or bad. I don’t think there is a way to convince someone that obeying Zeus is good and disobeying Zeus is bad without the carrot/stick of heaven and hell. In what way is following their arbitrary rules objectively good? If one claims that we cannot get moral realism from any human argument, how can we get it from an argument made by a god?
The god will send me to heaven or hell depending on what I do, but a parent may give their child dessert or send them to their room depending on what they do, but this reward/punishment system has no basis on morality.
What is special about the nature of a god that makes their word moral realism? The mere fact that they created the universe or have power over it and the afterlife doesn’t actually seem sufficient here. Consider someone creating a simulation of a universe, within which sentient minds will live out their lives. The creator of this simulation may as well be a god of it, and they might ask their creations to do certain things like worship them or they will put them in a different simulation full of suffering rather than a different simulation full of pleasure (for some reason???). In what way is the arbitrary list of rules this simulation creator comes up with objective morality?
In conclusion, I argue that ones’ view of moral realism should be consistently applied whether talking about morality as defined by a human or by a god.
As an additional related thought, I find it odd that a theist might call an atheist selfish or immoral when they are (often, I think) primarily doing what they see as ‘good’ to get heaven and avoid hell. Atheists do this without the carrot and stick reward/punishment system of afterlife. Wouldn’t this make theists more selfish?
The best steelman I can think of for the actions of a theist is that, if their god(s) were real, they might very well constitute a utility monster. Maybe keeping their god happy and not upsetting them becomes the most important thing they can do, and it would be worth not optimally reducing suffering (or actually causing suffering) in this universe to optimise for how good their god(s) feels. For example, imagine if donating $100 to your church instead of feeding 10 starving children makes your god feel so good that it outweighs the suffering of the children. Kind of abhorrent, but this is one of the strongest cases I can make for theists.
In addition, converting people to their religion can be seen through a new light. If it is indeed the case that we will get infinite suffering or bliss, a theist convincing other people about this and getting them to do ‘good’ things may very well be the most utilitarian thing they can do. This might make theists who don’t try to convert everyone selfish and awful (assuming their whole religion is true, of course) for robbing people of infinite bliss.
I’m genuinely interested in hearing from some theists about these thoughts. Is there something relevant that I’m missing that would make a gods’ morality objective if they did exist? ‘They are a god’ is not an answer.