John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, delivered a message on October 11, 1798, to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. In that message he said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Now why would he say such a thing?
Over the last few years various Atheist groups around the country have been putting up billboards to promote their belief. One of them reads: I can be good without God.
What possible criteria could an Atheist use to make such an assertion?
Where Does Morality Come From?
I have had the opportunity, on numerous occasions, to have conversations with Atheists. At some point we always seem to migrate to the topic of morality. What usually happens is that the Atheist makes some kind of claim to be a good, moral person.
But here is the problem. Morality has to be built on something. It is a designation that must be understood in relation to some standard. When considering the concept of morality based on Christianity, the standard is pretty straightforward – the teachings of the Bible. But what is the standard for Atheists? That is much more nebulous. Atheists don’t believe God exists, so there is no one outside of the material universe to establish any objective moral standard. That leaves human beings to set the standard themselves. So where should they get it from? For Atheists, there are not too many possibilities.
One of the more common approaches they use is to invoke “the common good.” That is, what best provides for the survival of the species or the community. Unfortunately, this is a rather arbitrary way to determine morality. Someone has to make that determination, and it is usually the ones in positions of power. That means, those who attain power in society have the ability to impose their beliefs and views on everyone else based on what they believe is good for the collective. In this case, it doesn’t really matter what individuals think.
Another common approach is to invoke personal preference. This allows individuals to make up their own morality. The biggest drawback with this is that there is inherent conflict between people who prefer different approaches. Ultimately, it still comes down to who has the ability to impose their will on others.
One other possibility is for Atheists to borrow their morality from somewhere else. Those who claim “I can be good without God,” generally borrow their sense of morality from some religious system – frequently form the Christian faith. They often identify such actions as killing, stealing, lying (and other sins which are revealed in the Bible) to be evil. It is also not unusual for them to invoke the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) as a positive standard. The only problem is, there is no objective reason for them to identify these things as either good or bad. For them, it is an arbitrary judgement.
America’s Historical Moral Foundation
No matter the situation, there will always be some standard of morality which dominates a society. There is always some default orthodoxy. In America, the default is Christian Theism. This is the foundation the founders used as they set up the nation’s various institutions. The moral beliefs they operated from were those taught in the Bible. This brings into focus John Adams’ statement quoted at the beginning of this article.
But the moral beliefs, by themselves, don’t give us the full picture. There are different ways to evaluate and follow moral teachings. As we look at the implementation of morality in American society, there are two basic ways it can be, and has been, expressed – internal and external.
The internal expression is based on one’s personal relationship with God. Of course, you can’t get away from the need to have an intellectual understanding of biblical teachings concerning what is right and wrong. But the motivation for actually living by what the Bible teaches is a desire to please a personal God who is known in a personal relationship.
The other possible expression is external. This approach is also based on a belief that biblical teachings are right. But the motivation for living by them is impersonal rather than personal. A person can go this route without even knowing a personal relationship with God. All they need to know is a list of rules which are derived from the Bible. The reason for choosing to legalistically follow the Bible, rather than some other set of rules, can be quite varied. Some do it because that is the way they were raised and don’t know any different. Others do it because they see the quality of the rules and believe this is better than other ways. The possible motivations are, literally, as varied as the number of people who follow this approach.
To understand where American culture is currently, it is helpful to trace the flow of cultural beliefs. Of course, this is, by necessity, a very generic explanation as there is no particular moment in time when the culture moved from one stage to another. It began, basically, in one place, and has ebbed, flowed and trended to where it is now.
The true essence of the Christian faith is not a set of moral regulations. Rather it is a personal relationship with a personal God. The principles used in the founding of American society were derived specifically from the Bible by people who knew this kind of relationship. When principles come from this source, the rules of society take on a very unique quality. People don’t follow them because “these are the rules.” Rather, they recognize biblical teachings as the way God wants things to be and, because they love God, they desire to please him by living in ways which correspond with the “rules.” In other words, adherence to societal principles (laws) is based on an internal desire to be obedient to God rather than on a legalistic adherence to rules.
Over time, the principles became institutionalized and people came to live by them simply because “these are the rules.” Unfortunately, as time passed, the percentage of people who followed the principles because of a personal relationship with God declined. At some point the majority still believed in and followed the “rules,” but the motivation was external rather than internal. When that happens, the object of loyalty changes from God to the rules or to the nation.
The next step occurs when a generation comes along which begins to question the legitimacy of the rules. Without a personal connection to God, the rules are not tethered to anything absolute. They become just one possibility among many for regulating society. At this stage, various groups begin advocating for a different set of rules – which are inevitably established on an entirely different moral foundation.
Finally, when a majority is established who don’t like the founding principles, the rules are changed in a way which sets aside the old foundation and establishes a new one. At that point, power and personal desire become the principles which govern society rather than God’s revelation. And this is, essentially, where American culture has gone.
Back to the Beginning
So, we are now back to the original question: Can America Be Moral Without God? Of course it can … if you define morality based on human opinion.
But there is such a thing as an objective way that reality exists, and that objective reality includes the God who is revealed in the Bible. Beyond that, this God has revealed himself – not just in laws he wants us to follow, but as an actual person with whom we are able to have a personal relationship.
The truth is, America cannot be moral without God because, in an objective sense, morality is based on a relationship with him. If he does not exist, actual morality does not exist – only people’s personal conception of it. Or, if a person does not have a relationship with God, they are not aligned with the true morality which does exist.
Morality is, at its most fundamental level, is tied to a personal relationship with God. It is essentially an internal set of beliefs which are expressed externally. People can do acts which imitate true morality, but unless the internal element is present, the morality is an empty shell. Those who claim they can be moral without God simply do not understand the true meaning of what it means to be moral. In its most profound sense, people cannot be moral without God!
© 2013 Freddy Davis