CraigĖTaylor Debate:
Is the Basis for Morality Natural or Supernatural?

Opening Statement
Richard Taylor

I was given two questions. The first is, "Can we be good without God?" This question answers itself. Over the past thirty or forty years, Iíve associated with many, many people, and still do, on a daily basis. None of these has an active belief in God as a lawgiver. I can think of only one who might believe in God as a lawgiver. This does not mean theyíre not decent people. It doesnít mean they donít go to church. Some of them do. Not one of them, so far as I know, thinks that he would not know the difference between right and wrong if that were not given him by God. These people know, as you and I do, that there are reasons for not stealing, there are reasons for not assaulting, there are reasons for not lying. These things hurt people. We teach our children that this is not the way to behave. We know that this is not the way to behave. We do not need a God to tell us this. That question, therefore, I cannot really take very seriously, namely: Can we be good without God? The people I know somehow manage to do this, as do I. I have children. I do not teach them about God. When I read stories to them and we come to the word "God", they do not know what it means. Iíve explained, I even one day took them to church so they would see what this is all about. They do not need God in order to learn to live decent lives. They are taught daily certain things you may not do, certain things they must do, and certain things they may do. I did not get this from theology, nor will they.

The second question is more serious. Itís supposed to be the same question, but you will see that it isnít. This question is, as it was put to me: Is the basis for morality natural or supernatural? It is neither. The basis for morality is conventional, which means the rules of morality were fabricated by human beings over many generations. These rules are: to abstain from injury, to abstain from lying, theft, assault, killing, and so forth. These rules were not the invention of God. No one in this room imagines that if there were not a God to tell us these things, we would not know any better. No one in this room thinks that if God had not told us this, if God had not delivered these rules to Moses, then we would not see anything wrong with my stealing, assaulting, and killing. The Greeks assumed that human morality is based on convention. So much did they do this that the greatest [tape unintelligible] right and wrong. He [Aristotle] talks about virtues. He assumed that people know the difference between right and wrong, and they derived this from experience and convention. You can search this book for any reference to moral right and wrong, and you will not find it, because it is not needed. The role of religion and ethics has been to reinforce this conventional morality. To say that morality is conventional is not to debase it. Conventional morality is obviously important, so important I hardly need to tell you what it is, though I will in a moment.

But first I wish to say this: Religion has served to underpin this conventional morality. In any church you walk into, youíll find near the altar an American flag. It has no place there. It has no place in the Christian religion. It is there to tell you that the church upholds the conventions of our society. In a Christian school wherein some send their children, the way to get the teacherís attention is to hold up an American flag. What has that to do with religion? Nothing. It is a symbol of conventional ethics.

This is made so patently clear by the way even theologians think about these things. Religious people are sometimes brought up short by the fact that Jesusí first miracle was the conversion of water to wine. The drinking of wine, along with spirituous beverages, is, to some religious people, thought to be wrong. So what are we going to do with this? It says very clearly there that Jesus converted water to, of all things, wine. The are two ways that people have tried to get around this. One is to say, "Well, he didnít really mean wine. He must have been talking about grape juice." Joseph Fletcher once told me a story about a conference he once attended, of theologians, religious Protestant theologians, clergymen, who had painfully addressed this question. And after many hours of discussion, they finally arrived at this conclusion: that this otherwise perfect man was wrong at this point. He should not have converted water to wine. But what is happening here? [tape unintelligible] What they have done is taken conventional morality, conventional morality [tape unintelligible] culture, [tape unintelligible] indeed, the actions of the divine being.

Now I want to go back to what I said under question (1). Can we be good without God? I pointed out that a number of people somehow managed to. I manage to. The Reverend Mr. Craig may say, "Ah, yes, but these rules that you were talking about here [tape unintelligible] were after all [tape unintelligible] derived from the Christian religion." I think they were not. They were derived from human experience. You donít have to be religious to realize that for human beings to live in peace and happiness, they must not assault each other. I may want to assault, but I do not want to be assaulted. If Iím tempted to theft, still I do not want to be stolen from. If Iím tempted to murder, I do not want to be murdered. The rule thus emerges: Let no one do these things. Then we can live in peace. Then we can realize the human goods we need. Now if anyone thinks that we wouldnít know that if God had not come down and given these laws to Moses on Mount Sinai, if anyone thinks we wouldnít know that otherwise, that person must believe in the tooth fairy. There is no plausible [tape unintelligible], there is every reason for having these rules. Thereís every reason why human beings should have evolved these rules without having to be told by God that they are valid.

Now I noted that somehow people managed to be decent without this theological underpinning of their decency. Now letís look at the other side. I cannot but be impressed that those who resort constantly to the theological basis for ethics have not [tape unintelligible] themselves. Recently we have [tape unintelligible] guilty of abusing children. It has become a scandal in the church. It is a priesthood, which bases its morality ostensibly on God. What could [tape unintelligible]. We have a Pope, John Paul, who, with no experience whatever of marriage, of human sexuality, certainly not of female sexuality, presumes to write encyclicals in which he [tape unintelligible] upon all these matters with no knowledge whatsoever about them, no arguments. He simply says, "This is the law." Where did it come from? He says, "From God." You donít believe that, I donít believe that. It came from the Church. When it is pointed out that his own priesthood is engaged in scandal, that the law requires that the abuse of any minor be reported, the law requires that any suspicion of child sexual abuse be reported, the priesthood has not done it. Instead, the bishop approaches the parents of these children and pays them to be silent, to disobey the law, to cover it up. And the Pope himself, instead of defrocking these priests, appoints a commission, and then, on his latest visit to this country, blames, not the priesthood, but the American culture. There is far less wrong with the American culture and with American cultural values than there is with the values expressed in that attitude.

We look to the men and women of God, and we ask, "What do we do?" We see Jim Bakkerónow in prisonónot only for bilking millions of dollars from his followers over television, but for seducing his secretary, and then five minutes later going radiantly on television beaming with [tape unintelligible]. This is the man that derives his ethics from God? This is the man who will tell you that there is no foundation of ethics independent of God? Do you believe that? Jimmy Swaggart, a man who made his livelihood and his reputation by appealing to God and the necessity to believe in God as the moral foundation of your lives, is found whoring in motels; then goes weepily [sic] before the television cameras to say, "I have sinned!" Indeed, he has. But now where is he? Where is this basis of morality supposed to depend upon God? Oral Roberts, selfĖproclaimed defender of God and moralityóI havenít heard from him in quite a while. The last time I heard from him, he had retreated to his prayer tower and threatened that he would die if they didnít send several million dollars to his school. We are told, it is suggested, the basis of morality rests on God. It doesnít.

The Greeks distinguished between nature and convention. They said some things are by nature, some things are by convention. Ethics is by convention, but it has a natural basisónot natural law, not some law written in your heart, not some law written in Scripture. The natural basis of ethics is human need. There are certain things which all of us hate. We hate to bleed, we hate to be wounded, we hate to be killed, we hate to be stolen from, and we make our laws according to this. The natural basis is certain universal needs: the need for security, for safety, for love, the need to bring up our families in security, to teach our children to fulfill our own potentials as we can, and having these needs, we have rules. We have rules, and they are important. Everyone sees them, I see them, you see them. Ask yourself, then, the next time you think of one of these rules, ask yourself, "Would I have no respect for human life, would I have no respect for truth, would I have no respect for human happiness, if God had not somehow disclosed these things to Moses on Mount Sinai?" You donít need that. All you need is to be human, to be a human being, to have the needs you have, and to have some human intelligence.

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