Morality Without God

“Morality Without God” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, November 25, 2012

Reading One Abraham Pleads for Sodom  Genesis, Chapter 18

Yahweh has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their violent abuse of traditional rules of hospitality.

17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.[c] 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[d] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[e] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

Reading Number Two from Moral Clarity by Susan Neiman

We have moral needs, needs so strong they can override our instincts for self-protection, as the story of Abraham shows. It also shows those needs are not based on religion, or any form of divine command. They include the need to express reverence and the need to express outrage, the need to reject euphemism and cant and to call things by their proper  names. They include the need to see our own lives as stories with meanings–meanings we impose on the world, a crucial source of human dignity–without which we hold our lives to be worthless. Most basically and surprisingly, we need to see the world in moral terms. These needs are grounded in a structure of reason. While they may be furthered by religion, or emotion, that is not what keeps them alive. As I will argue, they are based in the principle of sufficient reason that we use as a compass. Moral inquiry and political activism start where reason is missing. When righteous people suffer and wicked people flourish, we begin to ask why. Demands for moral clarity ring long, loud bells because it is something we are right to seek. Those who cannot find it are likely to settle for the far more dangerous simplicity, or purity, instead.



“We are born with a sense of justice the world does not meet.”

That’s a sentence from the middle of the concluding chapter of Moral Clarity, an interesting book from philosopher Susan Neiman.  It’s as good a place as any to start this unfinished sermon.  Unfinished?  Yep.  This is a large topic.  Philosophers and peasants alike have been puzzling over it since –forever.  If you expect a definitive answer from me, let me let you down now.  I don’t have one.

In fact I will admit right now that the moral world I inhabit is coloured a murky grey.  I have a great distrust of the absolute assertions of those who claim moral certainty.  The oil sands are not all good nor all bad.  The Israelis and the Palestinians both have legitimate claims and both commit terror.  And the Republicans and Stephen Harper are not wrong all the time, nor are the Democrats and NDP right all the time.

Those who would throw the book at anyone and everyone who commits some kind of crime ignore the sociological and psychological roots of behavior and fail to recognize how those forces inspire and nurture criminal behavior.

And those who insist that their position (whatever position)  is both backed by and justified by divine providence are as inexpressibly naïve as they are poorly educated in religion and theology.

From whence does any moral certainty come?  From God?  From Ideals?  From Law?  No.  I’m not sure there is much moral certainty except in the minds of those who set confining limits on their thinking.  But whatever certainty there might be comes from us, from merely human beings puzzling over questions of right and wrong and feeling a desperate, insecure need to be right and have certainty.  This conviction that we know right and wrong absolutely is only an illusion with no basis in rationality or reason.  There is no ethic nor any moral stance that is right for once and for all time and for all situations.  There is no moral certainty.  The most we can hope for are moments of moral clarity,

Many people claim morality comes from God, and will cite the Bible or the Koran or some other holy text as the beginning and ending of ethical discussion, that the word of God has all the answers.

It’s a nice idea, but it’s simply not true.  Take, for example, a few of the Ten Commandments.  We are not to steal, or kill or covet, and yet there are countless stories in the Hebrew Scripture where Yahweh either does those things or orders them to be done by his chosen people…or even against his chosen people.

In the book of Job, Yahweh destroys a man’s life: kills his family, ruins his reputation, kills his animals and sends illness upon him…on a dare from Satan.  And when Job stays faithful,  God finally rewards him with a new family and more wealth than he has ever had before, which is nice…except that all that killing and destruction still took place.

A couple of weeks ago in the Question Box sermon I was asked to muse on the statement, “If God is good, he is not God.  If God is God, he is not good.”  The idea behind this poser is that a God who must judge the sins of evil cannot be merciful all the time.  On the other hand a God who forgives everything is neither moral nor fair.  Yet the Bible portrays in its different parts both the merciful and the harsh faces of the deity.  How can we derive moral certainty from such a figure?

Neiman cites a story about Abraham, the father of Judaism.  Yahweh plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – not because of homosexuality as is often claimed, but because the Sodomites want to violate the ancient laws of hospitality to strangers and gang rape them.  Mistake.  Turns out the strangers are God’s messengers.  Ooops.  Yahweh is a bit upset and plans to wipe out cities completely.  But Abraham, carefully and respectfully, nevertheless stands up to this angry and violent god.  He argues with God, bargains with him to spare the city if he can find 50 honest people, then forty and finally down to nine.  Clearly Yahweh’s moral position is not absolute.

So what do we take from this?  Writes Neiman:

Three things about Abraham’s action stir hearts like mine.  One is his resolute universalism.  Abraham’s concern for the innocents of Sodom is not concern for his friends or his neighbours, it’s concern for innocents everywhere.  The people of Sodom are abstract and nameless and still worth the risk to his life.  Another is his resoluteness, period…This is not, after all a democracy, but a world in which kings are ill inclined to let subjects rebuke them.  Abraham dares to remind the King of Kings that He’s about to trespass on moral law…The third striking point of this story is its attention to detail.  Moral judgment is not a matter of decisions made once and for all, but of keeping your eye on distinctions.  Numbers matter. Gradations matter…If he (Abraham) can make God stop and think about small differences, none of us is ever exempt. Moral judgments are slow, specific and seldom absolute.

Even God, has to stop and think about his actions in the Scripture.  There are no moral absolutes.

Damn! Just when we thought that making our way in this world could be straightforward if we just follow God!  So here we see that all those purists who claim God as the source of some kind of moral certainty are basing their claims not on any coherent reading of sacred texts, but on some kind of self-interest that has them mining Holy books for passages that support their self-interested position.  In my field they call it ‘proof-texting’, supporting your views with Scriptural references.

Even when done with intellectual rigour, it is a game marked by disingenuousness.   Indeed, if one looks at the Bible with a measure of intellectual honesty (and yes, that’s a subjective moral statement on my part) one can see that it is not a collection of books designed to give fixed answers.  Instead it is a collection of puzzling stories designed to make us think for ourselves about our obligations to the divine, to the Law, and to one another.  To try to boil it down to fixed rules is to do a great disservice to the text.

Neiman again, “Biblical texts are ideal for learning about moral clarity – not because they make it easy, but precisely because they don’t.  Examining them shows that clarity, like other virtues, is never a given, but something to be achieved – although, like other virtues seldom for very long.”

So if God does not serve as the moral North Star in the firmament, where are we to turn?

Greek philosophers like Epicurus turned to enlightened self-interest.  In order to live in peace and prosperity we will live moderately and learn the kindergarten virtues like sharing and playing fair.  It is in our own interest to do so and to encourage others to do so.  Embrace moderation says Epicurus, for gluttony and drunkenness are bad for your health and harm others as well.  A moderate society is based on respect for self and respect for others.  Centuries later the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would add making and keeping promises builds community as does honesty.  Our own Unitarian post WWII theologian James Luther Adams argued for the moral value of voluntary associations.  As altruistic citizens we should engage in the public discourse and make decisions together for the good of all.

All of this is nice, but falls down when one person’s interpretation of enlightened self-interest differs from another’s.  One could argue that Hitler came to power because he spoke to the self-interest of the German people oppressed by the Versailles Treaty.  On a far more local scale, one need only go attend a public forum on proposed LRT lines in this city to see how concern for property values trumps the public good with 9 speakers out of 10.

Enlightened self-interest is too subject to venality to stand as a gold standard for moral decision-making.  That said, most of us do incorporate a degree of self-interest into pretty much every moral decision we make.

Were this a lecture-length discourse instead of a sermon, I might run through a couple of other pillars from which thinkers have tried to create temples of morality, but they too fail.  Why?  Because morality comes as much from inside of us as anywhere else.  I began with a quote, “We are born with a sense of justice the world does not meet.” Just listen to a three year old learning how to say indignantly, “That’s not Fair!” to know the truth of the claim.

Neiman argues that the quest for morality begins with that urge to justice.  In the reading she said, “When righteous people suffer and wicked people flourish, we begin to ask why.”  There is something in the human make-up that craves a degree of order and stability.  It is why we formed families, then tribes, and later nations and increasingly complex forms of government.  We want to feel the safety of social structure shaping our world.  Even the seeming rebels don’t really want to do away with structure completely, they simply want to change its shape to suit their views.

As Neiman puts it, “We have moral needs…They include the need to express reverence and the need to express outrage, the need to reject euphemism and cant and to call things by their proper names.  They include the need to see our own lives as stories with meaning – meanings we impose on the world, a crucial sense of human dignity – without which we hold our lives would be worthless.  Most basically and surprisingly, we need to see the world in moral terms.”  WE, need.  The world does not.

So the need for morality comes from us alone, not from nature, nor God, nor high ideals.  It comes from our human construction of a human social world.  To expect some outside agency to lay down the once and for all moral code for us is unrealistic at best.

And that suggests that hope for a simple answer is also doomed.  William Bennet writes, “Moments of moral clarity are rare in life, and they are exceedingly precious.  They usually follow hours – years – of moral confusion; they seldom arrive all at once or definitively and they are never accompanied by a lifetime guarantee.”

So here I sit in my morally grey world certain only of the uncertainity.  And yet, like everyone else, I am called to make a hundred moral decisions every day, most quite small, but now and then quite large.

God won’t give me the always right answer nor will anyone else. But still I am not alone.  As a Unitarian I turn to our seven Principles and six Sources to help me make those judgment calls.  They don’t give me answers, but the point me to the questions that need to be considered, and lead me to libraries full of wisdom from those who have come before and who live today.  The Principles do not order me to do anything, but they invite me to work on my moral dilemmas in the company of others.  And that will have to be sufficient.

Writes Neiman, “We are finite and fallible and struggling, and we are nonetheless the source of moral reasoning….We are the ones who give moral guidelines body and life.  You can take, if you will, your solace in heaven, but you must work out your ethics on earth.”