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Morality Without G‑d

Morality Without G‑d


Is it possible to achieve a moral and ethical society while leaving G‑d out of the equation? Many today maintain that not only is this eminently possible, but morality which is not predicated on religion is a far better alternative to ethics that stem from blind adherence to a particular canon. The human heart, they argue, inherently possesses a moral compass. Religion all too often warps this inborn sense of right and wrong, and is simply another outdated device that enlightened societies can do without.

To address this issue, we must first take a brief dip into the deep waters of human psychology and anthropology. What indeed is the source of the natural moral compass, and why do certain people seem to lack this quality? And how is it that a creature which is naturally selfish, motivated above all by self preservation and aggrandizement, should also be naturally kind and concerned for the welfare of others?

Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power?An analysis of those people who engage in cruel and oppressive acts clarifies the issue. As a rule, these are people who are in power who torment the helpless -- tyrants bullying their victims, a nation's ruling ethnic group persecuting a weak minority, soldiers on the battlefield viciously mistreating their enemy, or, to a lesser degree, politicians corruptly misusing their office. In all instances, the oppressors are confident in their power and positions, and feel themselves to be immune from retribution, certain that their victims can never repay them in kind.

The rest of us are horrified by the immoral acts of these despotic individuals. Are we outraged because we are better people, or because we are not as of yet in power? Our righteous indignation upon hearing of incidence of murder, violence and injustice -- are they perhaps due to a subconscious fear that we could, G‑d forbid, be the next victims? Can it be said that our "moral compass" is nothing more than another self-preservation mechanism designed to protect ourselves from a society that could potentially descend into a state of anarchy in the absence of law and order?

Without compunction we trap mice and crush roaches that dare invade our homes. Why? Because we do not fear invading battalions of armed avenging rodents or insects. What if we viewed another segment of the population in a similar light? No, this is not simply remote conjecture; this actually occurred in a highly enlightened and civilized society less than a century ago!

And here is the scariest thought: even if our society as a whole never again deteriorates to that dreadful point, what if in our personal lives we encounter a situation wherein we feel completely secure in doing an immoral act, confident that the victim will never know who wronged him, or certain that he will never have the means to retaliate?

Maimonides writes (Laws of Kings 9:11):

"One who accepts the Seven Noahide Laws and is meticulous in their observance is from the righteous of the nations of the world and has a share in the World-to-Come -- provided that he does so because G‑d commanded so in the Torah. . . If, however, he observes them because his mind so dictates, he is not from the righteous of the nations nor is he from their wise ones [alternative version: rather he is from their wise ones]."

Perhaps Maimonides himself penned both versions. They are both equally correct.

These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentionsA society is wise to adopt the Seven Noahide Laws (seven universal laws, which include prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.) as part of their legal system. They are prudent laws that form the basis of a moral legal code. These laws are wise whether or not they are observed with the proper intentions.

Ultimately, however, it is not wise to follow these moral principles independent of their Giver. Such a moral system may work for most of the people most of the time, but inevitably it will fail -- either society-wide, or in the individual lives of citizens in certain situations. Absolute morality can only be a product of the unchanging realization that there is an absolute Divine "eye that sees, ear that hears, and all your actions are chronicled in a ledger."

Perhaps our Founding Fathers recognized this truth when they opened the Declaration of Independence with the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." A return to this idea would go a long way towards improving our nation's moral fabric.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations. To view or purchase David’s art, please visit
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Discussion (80)
October 27, 2016
Origin of Ethical Behavior
Religion comes before morals. How did we learn that murder and homicide are wrong were it not for the fact that G-d tells us so? We would be no better than Cain, without the commandment of not killing. The same thing applies to many other wrong doings. Although today it might appear that many irreligious people do have moral standards, at the root of these beliefs lays our faith.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel.
October 3, 2016
This is my first time on yourwebsite. Although not Jewish nor religious, I am impressed with your openness and strength in allowing negative or questioning/searching comments concening your beliefs. Many religions would not do that....
May 17, 2016
Re: Suzy Handler
What do you mean by Evil? G-d is in complete control of everything, so there can't be an "opposing force", and if you refer to the "evil inclination", that's only to test us and strengthen us, though G-d definitely doesn't want us to fall victim to it.
September 25, 2015
I firmly believe in G-d but I have often wondered. Is He concerned about evil or the idea of evil?
suzy handler
woodland hills, ca
September 25, 2015
Why would our creator care to chronicle everything we do?
April 30, 2015
Spare me....
Rabbi Brownstein, the Nazis were a Christian movement supported by the major churches of the day.

Your god is no different than Zeus or Ishtar - a mere fiction with which the ancient Jews justified their genocides against Canaan, Amalek, and Midian.

The fact is, they committed those crimes because the Canaanites, Amalekites and Midianite had land and wealth the Israelites wanted - what was needed was a justification to take it.... enter G-d.... and presto, instant justification for any atrocity we care to commit.

Theism is an impediment to morals, not an inspiration of them
April 29, 2015
There is no God in Buddhism but a good Buddhist is highly moral.
Chava Rosenthal
London UK
April 17, 2014
I like to concentrate on this world and doing good deeds of kindness. However, I often wonder what it would be like to have morality without G-d in the world to come. Separation from Hashem would be the hardest thing to accept.
suzy hander
woodland hills, ca
April 17, 2014
Re: Morality is impossible with gods
The idea of G-d is by no means the "only" way to justify atrocity, as witnessed in the excesses of the twentieth century, whether of Nazism, Communism or in Africa, which had very little to do with G-d. But we need to ask ourselves where our own morals come from. Would we have the same view of morality had there never been a Torah which commands "Justice, justice shall you pursue," "Love your fellow as yourself," and so on? Would the concept of morality even make sense without a transcendent Being who expects us to act contrary to our natures and interests for the sake of "righteousness?"

Without G-d (unlike 'gods') there is no moral standard to begin with. Human hearts are notoriously subjective and selective, and cannot and have never served as a firm basis for morality.

On the question of the Canaanites and Amalekites, please see
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
April 1, 2014
Morality is impossible with gods
As long as you accept the divine command theory of morals, it is impossible to actually BE moral. If the religious leadership says, "God wants you to exterminate the Canaanites" - then genocide becomes moral.

It seems disingenuous to cry about the Holocaust and at the same time justify genocide against Canaan or Amalek. If one is a crime, then so are the others. If one isn't, then neither are the others... only when we include the fiction of a god's command can we justify such atrocities.

God is an impediment to moral behavior - not an inspiration of it.