I gave a talk last week at a conference on ‘The Lust for Certainty’, organized by the Sea of Faith network. I enjoyed the event, especially Julian Baggini’s challenge to the very idea that the principal problem we face today is a lust for certainty. As troublesome as dogmatism, he suggested, if not not more so, is relativism and the refusal to be judgmental. In other words, the problem of lust not for certainty but for uncertainty (an argument with which I wholeheartedly agree).  My own talk was on ‘God, science and the quest for moral certainty’.  As it is long, I’m posting the first part of the talk here. The second part will come tomorrow. But if you can’t wait, the whole transcript is on my archive site,

‘IF GOD DOES NOT EXIST, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED’. DOSTOEVSKY NEVER actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism.

In recent years, the riposte of many to this challenge has been to argue that moral codes are to be discovered not in the mind of God but in the human brain. They are not revealed through faith but uncovered by science. Ethics is not a theological matter but a scientific one. Science is a means of making sense not simply of facts about the world, but also of values, because values are in essence facts in another form.

Some, like the cognitive psychologist Marc Hauser, who has faced condemnation by Harvard authorities for the fraudulent manipulation of experimental data, argue that humans possess a ‘moral organ’ akin to Noam Chomsky’s language organ, ‘equipped with a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.’ Others, such as the philosopher Sam Harris, reject the idea that evolutionary dispositions are a good guide to questions of right and wrong, but suggest that values are facts about ‘states of the human brain’ and so to study morality we have to study neural states. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which has caused considerable stir, Harris writes that

Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

Science does not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. For those whom we might describe as ‘neuromoralists’, the best way to distinguish between good and evil is, it would seem, in an fMRI scanner.

At first glance these two approaches – that God tells us what to do, and that science defines right and wrong – seem to be distinct, indeed almost polar opposite, approaches. One alienates moral values to a transcendental realm, and makes them the personal choice of a deity, albeit an all-powerful, entirely good deity. The other suggests that values emerge out of human needs, and that such values can be discovered by scientists in the same way that they can discover the causes of earthquakes or the composition of the sun.

I want to suggest, however, that these two approaches have far more in common that might appear at first glance. In particular, in the desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values, both diminish the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. Both seek to set moral values in ethical concrete.

The religious insistence on the need for a divine ethical lawmaker is, in part, an argument the nature of God. In the monotheistic traditions, God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good transcendent being, upon whose power, knowledge and goodness humans rely to establish the moral rules by which they should live.

This is not simply, however, an argument about God’s nature. It is also a claim about human nature. It is the weakness of human nature that creates the necessity for God’s moral law. In the Christian tradition that weakness is primarily the result of Original Sin. All humans are fallen because of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden in eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, having been forbidden to do so by God. It was this act of disobedience that disordered and disabled human nature. ‘The overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death’, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, ‘cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted.’ Only through God’s grace can humans now achieve salvation. ‘It is through the grace of God alone’, the theologian Alister McGrath explains, ‘that that our illness is diagnosed (sin) and a cure made available (grace)’.

The great medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas more than any previous Christian thinker lauded human nature and human reason and, unlike most theologians before him who had often insisted that faith and reason were contrary principles, sought instead to find faith through reason. But like all Christian thinkers Aquinas saw human nature and human reason through the prism of Original Sin. Before Adam and Eve’s misdeeds, human nature had been in pristine condition. Once humans had been cast out of the Garden of Eden, their nature was no longer a reliable guide to good and evil, ‘On account of the uncertainty of human judgement’, Aquinas wrote, ‘different people form different judgements on human acts; whence also different and contrary laws result’. Such confusion reveals the need for divine intervention:

In order, therefore, that man may know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid, it was necessary for man to be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it is certain that such a law cannot err.

What is striking about this medieval theological claim about human nature is how closely it mirrors the argument now made by many of those who reject God but look to science to define right and wrong. The bioethicist Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford, argues, for instance, that the human capacity for morality is ‘limited’, because evolution favoured a tribal, short-sighted sense of morality that is insufficient to deal with the problems of the 21st century, from climate change to terrorism. Space age science can, however, put right our Stone Age morality.

‘Our moral dispositions are’, Savulescu argues, ‘malleable by biomedical and genetic means’. So, a combination of positive eugenics and neurological intervention will, he believes, provide for ‘a better understanding of human moral limitation’ and allow us to ‘inculcate certain values and certain forms of morality’, enhancing good dispositions such as altruism, generosity and compassionate, and flushing out unacceptable ones such as aggression and xenophobia.

In other words, to echo Aquinas, the uncertainty of human judgment has created different and contrary moral codes. So that we may know without doubt what we should do and what we should avoid, it is necessary for humans to be directed in their proper acts by moral laws established by science, for such laws cannot err. The argument about the weakness of human nature, and the necessity for moral certainty to be imposed upon frail humans, has become translated from the language of faith and transcendence to that of science and empiricism.

It has been a long and complex historical process through which theological arguments about the weakness of a fallen being revealing the necessity for divine intervention mutated into secular arguments about the limitations of an evolved nature demonstrating the imperative for scientific intervention. The coming of modernity transformed society’s relationship to God. A religiously ordered world, rooted in faith, slowly gave way to a secular world driven by science. Modernity also transformed society’s relationship to morality. A world ordered by a moral economy gave way to one driven by political relationships.

In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structure of the community, a structure that was a given. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties. The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together by divine law – all were vested in the authority of God.

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it three main changes that transformed the language of morality. First the idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Second came the dissolution of traditional communities. Social structures were no longer given but became politically contested. And third, the concept of individual autonomy became far more important. The relationship between the individual and the community became a political, rather than a moral issue, while ethics became less about fidelity to God-given community-defined rules than about the individual making the right personal choices.

In the premodern world, the facts of the world gave rise to its values. In the modern world, the realm of facts and that of values became wrenched apart, a process given philosophical substance by  David Hume and GE Moore. The separation of facts and values opened the way to a fully scientific viewpoint, because science was no longer burdened with metaphysics. But it also made the question of morality far more difficult. For it raised the question: if values do not derive directly and automatically from the structure of the world, and they do not derive from God, whence do they derive?

The answer was that humans themselves had to take on the responsibility for creating and policing moral codes. For some this was a highly exhilarating prospect. Humans had to stand on their own feet, and think for themselves using reason. ‘Each man is his own moralist’, as Kant put it. For others it was deeply disconcerting. The very ground of morality seemed to have slipped away. Nothing was certain, anything seemed possible.

Morality became highly contested because society itself was now highly contested. In the premodern world, the structure of society was a given. Societies changed, of course, but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the fixed social framework.

From the end of the sixteenth century onwards, however, the structure of society was debated intellectually and challenged politically and physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society. In the modern world morality became distinct from politics, in a way it had not been previously, but moral debate also became inextricably woven into political debate, again in a way it had never previously been.

This paradoxical relationship between politics and morality had major consequences. The political belief, embodied especially in the Utopian outlook, that humans could rationally transform society, make history and shape their fate gave substance to the idea that humans were capable of establishing moral law without God’s aid. Such belief may have emerged out of a lack of faith in God, but it required a new kind of faith: a faith in humans as possessing both the wit and the will to transform society for the better. But over time, such faith, too, began to erode.

Consider the three nineteenth century figures who between them most embodied the changing attitudes to religion – Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche. Darwin represented one aspect of the Enlightenment challenge to faith – the importance of reason over revelation – providing for the first time a Godless account of Creation that made atheism not just conceivable but also plausible.

Marx represented another aspect of the Enlightenment challenge – the celebration of human agency. ‘Religious distress’, he wrote, ‘is both an expression of real distress and a protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heatless world, and the soul of a soulless situation. It is the opium of the people.’ For Marx, religion was at one and the same time an expression of alienation and a comfort in the face of such alienation, a protest against oppression and the perpetuation of such oppression. The real battle was not against religion but against the social conditions that made religion both possible and necessary. ‘The struggle against religion’, Marx argued, ‘is a struggle against the world of which religion is the spiritual fragrance.’

Darwin embodied the scientific assault on faith, Marx the political challenge. Both drew upon the spirit of the Enlightenment and both became highly influential over the next century and half in determining attitudes to faith. But perhaps the biggest challenge to faith in the nineteenth century came not from a philosopher who carried the banner of Enlightenment but from one who was as dismissive of the Enlightenment philosophes as he was of God – Nietzsche.

No philosopher is more associated with the ‘death of God’, having coined the very phrase. But if Nietzsche was the high priest at God’s funeral, he was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. The late nineteenth century experienced not simply a crisis of faith, but also what has been called ‘the crisis of reason’ – the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, disenchantment with ideas of progress and disbelief in concepts of truth. Nietzsche’s brilliance at giving voice to the growing disaffection of the age with both faith and reason would eventually turn him into a key figure of the postmodern assault on the so-called Enlightenment project.

The ‘death of God’, insofar as it happened, did not happen, then, in isolation but was part of a growing broader estrangement from classical notions of truth, reason and universal human values, notions that were embodied in both certain strands of traditional religion and in the Enlightenment critique of faith. The so-called Great Separation – the uncoupling of politics and faith, and of the public and the private, an uncoupling that came, in part, to define modernity – is often seen as evidence of the death of God. In fact it was both a lot more and a lot less than that. God did not really die, but something more than God began to wither. Belief in a wider sense began to decay.

To be continued…


  1. Julie Swan

    This, like so many scientific efforts to discount religion seems to mainly think of Christianity as the only source of moral guidance for mankind. Is it a coincidence that religions from all over the world – even among the isolated tribes – have grown out of a fountain of what they deemed a divine outpouring of teachings from the Creator? Personally, I tend to try to verify my religious teachings – Baha’i revelation- through scientific inquiry into my own life and observations in the world around me. Religion has evolved through progressive revelation, just as scientific knowledge progresses through man’s urge to be the Creator, the All-knowing. I see the two methods of inquiry to be complimentary, not in opposition at all.

    • I’m not sure where I wrote that Christianity was the only (religious) source of moral guidance. I simply took Christianity as an example of the problems of locating morality in a transcendental realm, and as part of a historical account of how certain threads in religious (and more specifically monotheistic) accounts of human nature and of the necessity for moral certainty became translated from the language of faith into secular language. But, as you will see from the second part of this talk, the problem of looking to God for moral values is not one confined to Christianity. One of the key arguments as to why we cannot look to God to define right and wrong – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – was established prior to the emergence of Christianity. And it has as much relevance today as it did two and half thousand years ago. It is also as relevant to – and as undermining of – Baha’i as it is to any other forms of faith

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