The Problems of Divine Morality

A major point of contention between religious believers and secularists is that of morality.  The subject is nearly inevitable any time there is a debate, discussion or other confrontation between the two groups and the conversation nearly always proceeds in the same manner.  In this article, I intend to illustrate what I see as the most significant problems any theistic argument must overcome to legitimize the idea of divine morality.  It is a difficult proposal indeed.

By “divine morality”, I mean the idea that human beings receive their moral compass, their knowledge of right and wrong, from a divine source that has determined what these rules are.  It is the idea that morality is not man made and what morals we do have are divine in origin.  A corollary would also be that the non-believer or the person who has never heard the news of the One True Religion would therefore be bereft of true morality and doomed to live an immoral life and possibly an even worse afterlife (or at the very least, be denied the pleasures of some sort of post-apocalyptic Paradise).

However there are problems with this idea and I shall cover them one at a time.

The Morality of those not among the True Faith

Whatever the One True Faith may be, if there is one, there are many more who are not part of this organization.  If Islam is correct, there are many more non-Muslims.  If Mormons are correct, they are in the minority as well.  If Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct, once again they are far outnumbered.  None of this is big news to anybody, right?

It’s also not a mystery that among those of all religions and the non-religious, there are those who do their best to live a moral, ethical life and who are trying to make the world a better place.  I consider myself and all of my secular friends and family to be among this group.  The world is full of people who are not murderers, rapists, slave owners, physical abusers, thieves, liars, charlatans and con-artists.  There are very few human beings who are not disgusted at a story of child molestation and those who are not very likely have a mental disability.

The existence of moral actions among those who are not of the True Faith must be explained.  It’s not particularly difficult in some situations, such as a Catholic who can quite easily explain the moral actions of the Baptist to be the result of a partial understanding of Biblical teachings.  Of course a Baptist wouldn’t murder someone for their tennis shoes, they will surely understand at least that part of the Bible.

There is another problem that exists between various sects that share the same holy book.  Despite having the same source of information, nearly all of them disagree on the morals contained therein.  While most would agree that murder and infidelity are wrong, we find numerous discrepancies in issues like homosexuality, masturbation, drinking alcohol, communion/Eucharist, the role of women, whether or not women should wear pants, divorce, birth control, celebrating holidays, blood transfusions and associating with those who no longer believe in the religion.  That’s just scratching the surface.

So even those who get their divine morality from the same book cannot agree on what that morality is.  They must then appeal to something like the supernatural (Satan is corrupting everyone’s understanding of the Bible… excepting themselves, of course) or that humans themselves have allowed their own misunderstanding due to their own corruption (excepting themselves, of course).

The matter becomes more difficult when a person of a particular religion must explain the moral actions of one who is of a completely different tradition, such as a Muslim explaining the moral actions of the Catholic.  It’s still not impossible, of course.  One can simply claim that even though one may be incorrect in their religious beliefs, their very act of seeking God’s truth has granted them a basic, fundamental idea of morality.

This leads neatly to the explanation often offered by the theist when confronted with the question of why there are atheists who lead moral lives.  The answer is this: that even though atheists don’t believe in God, they are still God’s creations and as such have a sense of morality instilled in them from birth.

But this begins to sound very much like the same explanation given by the non-theist: that morality is an aspect of human behavior, bestowed upon us by evolution that better enables our own survival.  In other words, we were born with it but as a result of evolution, not because of divine endowment.

In any case, the existence of moral behavior among people of all creeds and none, and indeed the very fact that the religious and non-religious both attempt to account for its existence and strive for its perfection is evidence against divine origin.  It is a testament that all of humanity, regardless of belief or lack thereof, seeks a manner in which we can all live peacefully and happily.  The only difference is how we believe we find what constitutes moral behavior.

Why is anything right or wrong?

The next problem with divine morality is a problem of reasoning.  Were one to have a conversation with God wherein they had the opportunity to ask questions and subsequently ask why a particular behavior is morally right or wrong, there are two possibilities for the answer.

  1. God has a practical, logical reason for why something is right or wrong and that following the rule will help humanity to prosper
  2. It is only right or wrong because God said so and not because of a logical or practical reason

In the case of #1, then the moral is likely something humans have figured out on their own already or at the very least could eventually figure it out after trial-and-error.  In this case the morals are not truly divine at all and are dependent on human nature and the universe in which we live.  Given enough time, humanity should discover these and indeed, this appears to be precisely the case.  The most you can say in this case then is that God has merely given us morals in the past that we simply hadn’t figured out yet or that were already obvious.

In fact, can you think of any moral right or wrong that is so complex that we needed God to tell us but that makes sense to anyone who might hear it?

You could stretch the argument and say that because God created the universe that even practical, logical laws still follow the nature of his creation and are still therefore divine in origin.  This makes sense but it still stands that the morals aren’t a divine declaration but are merely a necessary result of his creation.

In fact, as God could have created the universe in an infinite number of ways, then even the manner of his creation is somewhat arbitrary.  It becomes interesting to ask questions like, “Could God have created a universe in which murder is good?”  If not, then this moral is universal and even independent of God himself.  If so, then the moral is arbitrary.

This argument also starts to look a lot more like the natural explanation to begin with: that morality follows the natural processes of the universe when it becomes beneficial for a species.  The secular and theistic explanation is now basically the same (morals naturally follow the laws of the universe) and we are now arguing over whether or not God created the universe and not whether or not morals are divine.

In case #2, if the moral is nothing more than a command because “God said so”, then the moral rule is completely arbitrary and following it is not for any practical purpose, but only because it is a divine obedience test.  But this is no longer a case of “right or wrong” and is now a case of “will you obey or not”?  It is an arbitrary rule put in place only to make it more difficult for us to live righteous lives.  But if this is the case, then how can one call this rule “moral” as it has nothing to do with right and wrong.

So this problem with divine morality can therefore be summarized in a simple statement: Divine morals are either not divine or not moral.

You can’t prove Divine morality

I’ve often heard arguments from theists that while atheists may act morally and even give reasons for doing so, they are incapable of proving that what they do is or is not moral since they have no ultimate authority that has determined it.  The theist is likely correct in this claim, at least the part where the atheist cannot definitely prove that their moral code is correct.  They then contrast this with their own position of having an ultimate authority who has sent down the official moral code from on high.  One need only to consult a holy book to find the right answer (as long as it has nothing to do with slavery, rape, gender equality or polygamy).

I now wish to point out that the theist can no more prove their morals are correct than I can prove that mine are.

Not long ago I wrote an article demonstrating how even if he existed, God himself cannot prove anything, including whether or not he is benevolent. There is no way one can prove or that we can ever know if God is good, evil, truthful or deceitful.  Because God is the ultimate authority, creator and manager of the universe he could always be manipulating all events and lying that we have free will.  He could even be Satan himself and we would have no way of knowing it.  You can’t even say that God could never be evil because there is no reason for that to be so other than our own desires.

Because of this conundrum there is no way that God himself can demonstrate that he has given us a moral code.  Any theist’s God could be malevolent and deceitful and they have no way to show otherwise.  Their morality, even though they claim it is divine, cannot be proven any more than an atheist’s explanation via natural causes.

So any theist who claims ultimate moral authority based on divine command is in no better position to prove it than I am.  They must appeal to faith while at least the atheist can appeal to science, observation, philosophy and learning from human history.

Other Problems with Divine Morality

While not necessarily an argument against divine morality, another issue that I would like to bring up is an interesting difference between divine and secular morality.  Divine morality is supposedly absolute and unchanging.  It was established at the moment of creation or even before it and that it will always remain the same.

An observation that even a casual observer will make, however, is the changing nature of the moral values of the religious themselves.  This may not be true for all sects all of the time but it is likely true for all of them at least once.  For example, the Bible makes many commands and has many rules that are no longer regarded as important today by most sects of Christianity.  A good example here is the role of women in church.  The Bible is pretty clear in its prohibition of women from even speaking in church, let alone becoming a clergy member.  Yet today, particularly in protestant denominations, it is quite common for women to be ministers and preachers.  The church has determined that either this command of the New Testament is no longer relevant and merely a product of its age, or that it was misinterpreted.

Yet if one were to go back in time and present a woman as a church leader, she and you both would likely be burned at the stake as heretics or stoned to death.  History is rife with examples of changes in church doctrine to reflect societal and cultural changes.  The adherents of course chalk it up to better interpretation, earlier corruption or even some sort of divine revelation or “new light”.

In contrast, non-religious morality is flexible, willing to admit that it is in need of reconsideration and updating and uses actual human observation and scientific understanding as part of the process.  In this way we have discovered the errors of our own ways, such as with slavery, racial equality, gender equality, sexual orientation and gender and even religious freedom.  We are by no means finished and I’m sure things will be different in 10 or 15 years than they are now.

Another problem that is fairly obvious to anyone outside the faith is that God seems to exempt himself from his own moral law.  God continually resorts to slaughter, torture, fits of anger, pride, jealousy, human sacrifice, incest, slavery, destruction, floods, plagues and even creative executions like a pillar of salt.  He is vengeful, manipulative, bloodthirsty and cannot forgive without death.  Any human who acted as God has would be considered as evil as Adolf Hitler.

Many believers absolve God by stating that as the creator of morals, he isn’t held to the same standards, but this sounds an awful lot like an excuse for it.  One would think that an all-powerful deity would be capable of handling the Universe without resorting to the very behaviors he prohibits.  He could be an ultimate, shining example of morality and not “do as I say, not as I do”.  Even if one claims that Jesus was this very example, you still have to account for the thousands of years that preceded Jesus.

The religious themselves even seem to struggle to follow their own moral codes as much as any other human being.  Look among the religious and you find people murdering, occasionally in the name of their god, molesting children, acting out of greed, living in opulent excess, being dishonest, abusing substances and even engaging in acts that are more exclusive to their religion, such as pornography, homosexuality, swearing and many others.  Even the majority of the US prison population identifies as Christians or at least theists.

At this point one must resort to the No True Scotsman fallacy and claim that the individual is obviously not a *true* <insert religious sect here>, or that of course they are still sinners which is why they need Jesus to begin with, etc.  But this looks like an attempt to explain the fact that religious belief seems to have little real bearing on adherent’s moral actions.

People of all creeds and none commit wrongdoings.  There are those among all creeds and none who commit atrocities.  There are many among all creeds and none who are morally upstanding and make admirable efforts at behaving morally.


The one who claims that morals must be divine has a very difficult sell to make.  When God himself does not abide by them, when the adherents don’t abide by them any more than non-adherents, when they change along with society and culture and when people of all faiths and of none show just as much interest in living a moral life as everyone else, the task of proving that morality is divine becomes quite difficult.

But it becomes impossible when the logical difficulties arise.  If God has a practical, logical reason for a moral then it need not be divine.  But if he does not, then it is not really moral, it is merely an obedience test.  Worst of all, you can never definitely prove that the morals in your holy book are actually good because you, nor even the god itself can prove that it is benevolent and good.


  • I wonder – what if there was a divine being but he/she didn’ t give any rewards for being good? Would theists still be good? Would they still do what is right if there was no reward from a divine being?

    I think that this is also a good test of where morality comes from – it comes from people themselves because they believe that there is a reward from a divine being for being good.


  • Incest is also a good example of why it is not possible to claim that morality is of divine origin.

    It is condemned in the Bible, but is nevertheless part of God’s plan for Adam and Eve’s and Noah’s families, and Abraham was rewarded for it.
    Abraham married his half-sister. He was one of the most holy men of the Old Testament. God rewarded them for it: “And God sad unto Abraham, as for Sara thy wife…I bless her, and give thee a son also of her…” (Genesis 17:15-16, Genesis 20:11-12).

    There were other instances of incest in Abraham’s family:
    Abraham’s brother Nahor married Milcah, the daughter of Haran, Abraham’s other brother (Genesis 11:26-29). So Nahor (Abraham’s brother) married Milcah (his niece).

    Isaac, Abraham’s son, married Rebekah, the granddaughter of his father’s brother Nahor and niece Milcah (i.e., his first cousin-once-removed). And their children Esau and Jacob continued to marry into their own family.

    Lot fathered children with his own daughters, with no word of opposition from the Bible, after they took turns to seduce him while he was drunk. Lot is considered favourably by God, was saved by God’s angels (Genesis 19:11-13, 15-17,19) and is described as just and righteous in 2 Peter 2:6-8.

    Most modern societies have laws banning incest since inbreeding causes countless genetic problems in families, which get worse per occurrence and leave detectable dents in the genetic makeup of species.


  • The Adam & Eve story challenges the idea that God is the source of human morality.

    These two humans had no idea what “bad” meant. They ate from the tree because they didn’t understand what “bad” meant. When they ate from the tree, they now understood what “bad” and “good” was so why such a harsh punishment of diseases, sickness, and death not only for them but for all humanity.

    It was only after the two ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they developed a moral sense, and thus could be held responsible for disobeying God. But he blamed them, and their billions of descendants anyway. A harsh and unfair God, harshly punishes a naive couple and everything else.

    According to the Bible Adam and Eve did not know right from wrong when they sinned (they did not know good from evil UNTIL they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Yet we are told that God did not forgive them, but demanded the ultimate penalty many times over.

    Courts around the world show mery to those who do not know right from wrong. A “NotCriminally Responsible” designation is a fundamental priniple of many justice systems. Accused persons must have the capacity to understand that what they did was wrong – otherwise they cannot be found guilty of an offene; such persons are not fit subjects for retribution or punishment.

    In Canada, for example, Section 16 of the Criminal Code states that a person is notcriminally responsible for something that he or she did (or didn’t do, if they were legally required to do something) if they were suffering from a mental disorder at the time, and:
    the mental disorder made it impossible for him/her to understand the nature and quality of what they did; OR the mental disorder made it impossible for them to understand that what they did was morally wrong (not just legally wrong).

    According to Christianity, god has condemned not only Adam & Eve to death, but their children as well.

    It certainly isn’t justice (divine or otherwise) to condemn not only the criminal to death, but also his offspring who have nothing to do with his crime – it certainly isn’t justice if the law which governs societies today wasn’t satisfied with the death of a criminal but came after his offspring and executed them as well for his crime.


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