“The Christian Post” recently published an article with a thought provoking title, “Atheist Sam Harris Partly Right That God Not Necessary for Morality, Christian Apologist Says.”1 A naïve reader of this article may think that Christianity endorses the atheistic notion that morality does not require God. Is it so? This is our first question.
While discussing this subject within the confines of Historic Christianity, evangelical apologists argue that God is necessary for objective moral values. Thomists, on the other hand, argue that there is a sense in which God’s existence is not necessary for objective morality but they also contend that there is a sense in which God’s existence is necessary for objective morality. Are these views reconcilable? This is our second question.
While speaking at the 23rd annual SES National Conference on Christian Apologetics, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Dr. Richard Howe, affirmed from within his doctrinal position of Thomism (or Natural Law) that God is not necessary for morality, “Is God necessary for objective morality? There is a sense in which that answer is no, God is not necessary for objective morality…”2 Hence, Dr. Howe’s view [partly or in a particular sense] harmonizes with atheist Sam Harris, who also argues that God is not necessary for morality.
Dr. Howe had also affirmed, in that very speech, that God is not a moral being, “In another sense, Howe suggested that it could be correct to say that God is “not a moral being,” if one is looking to “preserve something greater about God.” The apologist explained that “there is something about morality that by its very nature is finite,” which applies to humans but not God.”3
Quite immediately, Dr. William Lane Craig, who debated atheist Sam Harris on this very subject, took a considerate exception to Dr. Howe’s theological position. (Dr. Craig argues for God’s necessity for human morality.)
Dr. Craig reaffirmed that God is absolutely necessary for objective moral values, “…God is necessary for human morality because without God there would be no goodness in the first place…God is necessary in order for there to be goodness at all. The existence of God provides a deeper explanation for why human beings have moral value, namely, human beings in their nature resemble the nature of God.”4
Furthermore, Dr. Craig asserted that God is indeed a moral being, “…since moral obligations spring from God’s commandments and God doesn’t issue commands to himself, God doesn’t have any moral obligations to obey. He doesn’t have any moral duties to keep. In that sense one could say that there is something about morality (that is to say, doing your duty) that is by its very nature finite. But morality includes more than just doing your duty. It also includes value like goodness, and surely we do want to affirm that God is essentially good. Just as humans by their nature have objective goodness, so God, by his very nature, has objective goodness. No being that is not good would be worthy of worship or is the greatest conceivable being. I find it very odd here when he thinks that we shouldn’t say God is a moral being. I think one would say that God doesn’t have any moral duties to fulfill.”5
Means To Reconcile The Evangelical & The Thomistic Views
In his response to Dr. Howe’s speech, Dr. Craig implies a method to reconcile this apparent contradiction. Both these views, inasmuch as they appear to mutually contradict each other, could be reconciled, if we strive to understand the Thomistic position on this subject, “I suspect that that is not the distinction that Richard has in mind…Southern Evangelical Seminary is committed to Thomism as a philosophical worldview. So they are committed to a view of ethics called “natural law ethics.” I suspect that the differentiation that he is making here is probably appealing to the idea that according to natural law human beings have objective and intrinsic value based upon their very nature – what their nature is – and that you don’t need to refer to God in order to talk about the objectivity of the value of human beings on the basis of their intrinsic nature. That, I suspect, is the distinction that he is getting at.”6
Understanding Thomism (With Respect To Objective Morality)
Understanding Thomism within this specific context mandates a thorough comprehension of Dr. Richard Howe’s paper entitled, “Does Morality Need God in Order to Be Objective? The “Yes and No” Answer of Thomism,”7 wherein Dr. Richard Howe explains the following facets of Thomism:
1. The Thomistic definition of morality should only be understood within the context of Aquinas’ Natural Law Theory.
2. The Natural Law is an aspect of the Eternal Law whereby God governs and guides the actions of humans such that, when obeyed, it leads humans to their proper end. The Natural Law is one of the four aspects of law with which God relates to HIS creation:
Eternal Law (God’s providential working of the universe. It is the plan by which God governs His creation)
Human Law (particular application of natural law to local communities)
Divine Law (revelation of God’s law through Scripture to believers)
3. The Natural Law states that since humans have free will, they have the capacity to either choose towards or choose against moving towards their proper end or goal (their perfection). Thus the freedom of the will is a necessary condition for morality.
4. Aquinas understands “moral good” as a subset of “good.” The term “good” is best defined as that toward all things aim (an x is a good x when it has all the perfections that an x ought to have by virtue of being an x).
5. “Moral good” is a narrower concept. Morality has to do with a human choosing an action that perfects the human towards what a human ought to be by virtue of the kind of thing a human is, i.e., because of his nature.
6. The Thomist [and the standard apologetic view] believes that God is not epistemologically necessary for morality (the atheist could know that it is wrong to murder, even if he does not know God).
7. Thomists would disagree with the standard apologetic view if and when the standard apologetic approach is worded in such a way as to suggest that these objective goods (murder, lying, adultery, dishonoring parents) cannot be regarded as goods by the atheist. A case in point being that Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” is an ethics without God, for the god of Aristotle bears little resemblance to the God of Christianity. Therefore, if Aristotle, without knowing God, can produce an excellent work on ethics, then it would be incorrect to say that an atheist cannot recognize objective moral values.
8. Thomists argue that God is necessary for objective morality because:
A. Everything needs God in order to have any attribute. Without God, man cannot exist, for God created man.
B. God, who superintends all of HIS creation, directs man to his proper goals.
C. The precepts of morality take on their strongest obligatory aspect when man understands moral precepts as God’s commands.
D. Since humans are fallen beings, God’s special revelation is necessary for man to understand and fulfill his moral obligations.
E. Knowledge of the right thing need not necessarily empower man to be morally upright. Man ought to be led by God’s Holy Spirit to live right.
F. Man’s proper goal is not limited to the natural end within this life, for man also has a supernatural goal of being with God unto all eternity. This ultimate goal can only be achieved by the grace of God.
Thomism [Christianity] Does Not Endorse Atheism
The source of this discussion is an article that displayed a title alluding to a rather unholy doctrinal harmonization between Christianity and Atheism. Dr. Richard Howe was portrayed to be the culprit who endorsed atheist Sam Harris’ view that God is not necessary for morality. However, a proper understanding of Thomism offers the realization that the Thomist does not and cannot, by any means whatsoever, endorse atheism.
4http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-god-necessary-for-morality, accessed 18th January 2017.
7http://www.richardghowe.com/index_htm_files/Morality.pdf, accessed 18th January 2017.
With reference to Dr. Richard Howe’s comment that God is not a moral being, read his paper7 for further clarity.