After I made this post replying to Jon Stewart’s and Daniel Florien’s remarks about the value of faith, I copied my remarks and posted them to the website Unreasonable Faith where Florien’s remarks had been found. In reply to my comment another poster asked us non-believers there what motivates our morality since, having grown up a Christian, he does not see how the various secular options of which he knows could be terribly satisfactory. What follows is my reply to that query:
Questions of the most legitimate sources of value and normativity are not simple ones to answer. No truth worth knowing is easy to find but takes a lot of research and vigorous independent thought.
But, what I can say fairly easily is the following:
(1) to behave according to moral codes out of fear of punishment is simply not to be motivated by a sense of duty or from a sense of commitment to something taken to be of intrinsic value, so anyone who associates being good with “obeying God for fear of the consequences of disobedience” is either morally corrupt or ethically infantalized in my view.
(2) if morality did come from God’s arbitrary commands (which is the tacit position I think assumed in your question) then I don’t see why it would be “normative” upon us unless you also hold the view that “might makes right.” If God’s commands must be followed simply because he is more powerful over us and has control over our fate, then his supposed moral authority is only an extension of his greater power over us. If his power gives him such moral authority then it must be that might makes right. The notion that the universe is one great tyranny in which we must all submit to the arbitrary decrees of a powerful being on pain of eternal punishment is a monstrous notion that I’m glad is quite likely utterly false.
(3) While I think that metaethics and abstract normative theory are inherently vital, urgent, and fascinating topics (engrossing enough to commit the bulk of my research and teaching to investigating them), I do not think that everyone without a full-blooded ethical theory is just at a loss for ethical insight or direction. While I would argue for a particular conception of ethics and think that abstract investigation of ethics should in many ways help us revise and improve our everyday conception of the moral life—-I also think that people are sufficiently morally equipped to get by just fine without a grand theory worked out about what they are doing.
When I was still a devout Christian, a year before I left the faith, a close Christian friend, wracked with doubts, told me that he figured if there was no God then he could imagine just waking up one day and not moving. His mother would come in and ask him to get up but he just wouldn’t. There would be no purpose to anything.
And my reply to him even then, as a believer trying to persuade him to stay in the faith, was that even were I to be convinced there was no God I would still love what I love, love whom I love, and be passionate about the causes in which I believe. Good food would taste no less sumptuous, laughter would feel no less joyous and/or cathartic, friendship could be no less deep.
Unlike those who think there is no value apart from God, I am not a nihilist. I never was—neither as a Christian nor as an atheist. I do not need an external authority to tell me to value or not to value that in which I already find intrinsic and indisputable goodness.
I passionately pursue the questions of what makes the good good and I am eager to figure out the mistakes in our value judgments and to figure out how best to conceptualize and implement the best lives possible for us. But never, ever do I feel love and affection for another human being and think, “Oh no, this must be empty since there’s no God.” Never do I feel the rush of satisfaction when I’ve succeeded at a difficult task and yet lament that it is all in vain since there is no God. And never have I felt the pull of my conscience when I have done something that violated a principle I seriously hold, only to shrug it off because I’m not going to go to hell over it.
And I really don’t understand the psychology of anyone who could feel those things in the throes of those emotions.
For my reply to a comment on this post which came to me from an old friend, see Is God Necessary For Us To Care About Starving Kids A World Away?