Discussing a New York Times op-ed by a college professor about how young people are taught that all value statements are matters of mere opinion, Dennis Prager blamed the problem on a lack of religious faith. He went on to say that the kids have the logic, if not the conclusion: without religion, all moral statements have no truth claim:
If God doesn’t say “Do not murder,” murder isn’t wrong. Period, end of issue… Morality [becomes] just an opinion for “I like” or “I don’t like” if ultimately, there is no moral God in the universe that makes morality real. Without religion and God, there is no moral truth…
You can say “I think murder is wrong,” and I certainly hope you do. You can say “I believe murder is wrong.” But you cannot say murder is wrong.
I agree with Prager that it’s vastly easier to argue in favor of objective morality if we stipulate the existence of a moral God; indeed, I’d list that as among the top benefits of religion. I’ll further agree that the lack of belief in objective morality is likely related to the decline in belief in God (though I wonder if we’re seeing a similar effect as with voting; i.e., people’s habits and beliefs change — often for the better — as they get older and wiser).
However, I’ve two problems with Prager’s argument, one that he’s made before. Logically, I think he’s making a false choice by sorting all things as either demonstrable facts or mere opinions. As Professor McBrayer writes in the piece Prager cited, there’s a third option:
Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false… It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives).
So while demonstrating that the intentional taking of an innocent life is objectively wrong is difficult to do if God doesn’t exist, that doesn’t actually comment on the truth or fiction of the statement. The Earth was, objectively, the fifth-largest body orbiting the Sun even before we had the means of showing it (assuming, of course, that we actually have that correct now). As such, “murder is wrong” isn’t necessarily a mere opinion, but unproven supposition or speculation — perhaps with a lot to recommend it, logically and otherwise, but supposition nonetheless.
But there’s another, more practical problem: by switching the burden from proving the moral validity of a statement to proving God’s existence — which is the effect of Prager’s objections — you leave people without a belief in God with nothing else to work with. In a civilization with an increasing number of unbelievers, is it wise to essentially dismiss all ethical philosophy that isn’t explicitly religious?
I’m not making an argument against religion, let alone in favor of atheism (I’m not an atheist). But just as we seek independent lines of evidence in other pursuits as a means of moving suppositions and hypotheses toward the realm of working theory, it strikes me as a fool’s errand to abandon an entire line of pursuit. Civilization is too important.