The Table Video

Keith Ward

Morality and Belief in God

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward explains how belief in God grounds and motivates the moral life.


I think that a lot of philosophers maybe most moral philosophers, they think that morality is autonomous meaning it doesn’t depend on your other beliefs about the world. It doesn’t depend upon the will of God, it doesn’t depend upon your believing in God and I think this is quite wrong really. I think there is a basic morality there is a basic moral agreement you will get whether or not you believe in God.

Nevertheless, a morality based on belief in God is very different from a morality which is not based on belief in God. And the root of that difference is that thing, belief in whether there is any purpose, will go in the existence of the universe, and particularly whether there’s any goal for human beings. Is there a way that human beings ought to live whatever they think, is there a goal that it is proper for them and possible for them to aim at whatever they think, but that’s the part. And I think the non theistic morality cannot say there is such a goal.

It doesn’t make sense within that worldview. So we’d have to work it out in terms of, well, what makes for the most acceptable sort of life, as that actually is in this world. Whereas a theistic morality, one is based on belief in God is both easier and harder in different ways. It’s easier in the way that you do think it is nice to think, it is comforting if you like to think there is a goal in human life, which God could help you to achieve or at least it gives you a sense of optimistic purpose, in the long run and something to aim at.

But comforting is not quite the right word for that, because it’s also much harder to live that life. And you have to well, in the worst cases of course, be prepared to give your life to be a martyr, to give many things up, as Jesus said. If you must take your cross and follow me. So you’ve got this balance in a theistic manner between well, it gives you a sense of purpose, which is good, but it may lead you to die.

And Jesus, of course is primary example of this. This is somebody who had a sense of purpose, the kingdom of God and its advent, and also he died because of this. So theistic morality both in it’s sense of striving for a purpose even though you know it probably won’t succeed in this life, not giving up and in the sense of being prepared to die, for the sake of your moral beliefs. These are things which a non theist would find very difficult to justify. I’m not saying impossible, because humans can think that way through almost anything. But it’s not easy to see how, if you really thought there was objective in a way that humans ought to live, why should you try very hard to live in a particular way unless you felt like it?

And then one day, you might not feel like it. And so what would be wrong with that? And I think the best example of a non theist in morality is somebody like Jean-Paul Sartre, who ended up by saying, hell is other people. And there’s no way out really, you’re just stuck with this life. You make up a purpose, but you know there isn’t any purpose you’re bound to fail, who’s got a depressive character

Interviewer: Yes indeed.

And so I think there is a big difference. I think belief in God does make a difference. And indeed, I do think that most human beings do have a sense that there are things they ought to do, and that there is a way they ought to live, and that it’s worth striving morally, even if what you’re striving for is gonna fail. And I think that is a good argument for God.

Because none of those things really make sense without a belief that there is a purpose, which could be achieved. So that’s why I favor a theistic morality, although, as I say, most moral philosophers, assuming there’s no God have to find some other basis, and I think that’s very hard to do. I think I read two parts really at least two parts to a theistic morality.

One is the sense of purpose there is a goal to be achieved and it will be a fulfillment of human capacities and human life. Not a diminishment of it. The other thing is that there is an objective reality of goodness that is that God is perfectly good. So God is a being who fulfills all desires, in other words, there is some of his love.

I mean, if you think morality is a matter of just doing your duty, you’d do it because it’s wrong, well that’s okay. To do that, yes. If you think it’s about loving other people, well, if you look at them hurt, that’s going to be difficult to keep up for long. But if you think it’s a matter of loving God who is supremely perfect, and who loves you, and you’re responding to that love, that’s completely different approach. So you can actually love, you do what is right because you love the person who tells you to do it.

And that’s a completely different motivation for morality. I don’t see how a non theist could have such a motivation. So I do not think that an atheist has to be immoral. I don’t think that at all. I think they just find it hard to justify morality and they lack that element that there is love as well as duty in morality. And I think Christians have the enormous privilege of saying we love because we are loved. [tranquil music]

About the Author