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February 14, 2006

Morality Without God

I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.

Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."

But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?

Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."

Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?

[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 14, 2006 1:46 PM


[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]

Which one is Jesus?

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at February 14, 2006 6:35 PM

It wouldn't mean we'd be more moral without God. It just means that the motivation for being good should be independent of the rewards or penalties that God might provide. So Derrida's idea that one should act as if God doesn't exist doesn't exactly follow, though it's dramatic in a Derridean way.

What does follow is that one should do what's right independent of whether one will get an eternal reward, but not necessarily independent of whether God exists. After all, it may be God's teachings that point you in the direction of the Good and that draw you to the Good, again, independent of his carrots and sticks.

Though, when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to offer remarkable incentives for doing good.

Posted by: James Grimmer at February 15, 2006 3:55 AM

Derrida is basing his paraphrase of Kant, it seems, on the distinction Kant draws (at the end of the first General Observation in the wonderfully titled "Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone") between religions that are "endeavors to win favor" and "religions of good life-contact" (a category with one member: Christianity). Kant then writes, "It is not essential, and hence not necessary, for every one to know what God does or has done for his salvation; but it is essential to know what man himself must do in order to become worthy of this assistance." This doesn't entirely remove God from the (moral) picture, but it certainly seems a significant reduction in His responsibilities: It ain't about His "favor" (or, in Jesus' terms, His "reward"); it ain't about knowing His purposes. It does seem, consequently, that an increase in morality ("good life-conduct") is dependent in this passage from Kant upon some reduction in involvement with God. And this logic -- that some forms of dependence upon and knowledge of God can be impediments to "true" moral behavior (disregard of self-interest, for instance) -- is hard, with or without Kant (or Derrida), to ignore. Does this logic not, in some sense, reduce the need for God to exist?

Posted by: mitch at February 15, 2006 9:11 AM

One point of view which everyone seems to miss is that morality is a part of "the good" that God is attempting to get through to people. But that imparation of morality can't be understood unless a person accepts Gods whole package, namely the covenant that Jesus Christ initiated and dedicated by His own blood. God sent Jesus to be the benchmark of an agreement so that anything that contravenes the essence of the covenant could be named as evil in nature. ie: what was typically called the anti-christ spirit since it contended against the covenant. From Christ's point of view the way in which democracy has set out to be anti-christian in law, begs the question how christians could believe in a democratic system that is morally defunct and in no way acknowledges the authority of religious ideas, but instead forsakes everything for the sake of the god of economics.

Posted by: Pauli M at May 29, 2006 9:18 AM

"part of "the good" that God is attempting to get through to people"--Pauli M

The impotent God, attempting? A God who works in "mysterious ways" is hard to argue with, but one that "attempts" to communicate and fails is just nutsville.

Better be good for goodness sake. (Or because you want those toys!)

Posted by: Jay Saul at May 30, 2006 11:53 AM

I am sure you read this but it is pretty go http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557

Posted by: Brad at December 8, 2006 2:38 AM

I am sure you read this but it is pretty good http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557

Posted by: Anonymous at December 8, 2006 2:39 AM

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