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God’s Death and Wall Street

One of the most common arguments in defense of religion is the argument from Moral Authority. The challenge is that without God as a source of morality, there is no objective distinction between right and wrong. By no means does this prove God’s existence—unless you argue backwards from the premise that there is an objective moral code and therefore a God who established it—but it can be used to argue that even if God does not exist, we’re better off believing He does. This is a point well worth considering, particularly after a week in which some of the world’s most powerful people—Wall Street bankers—were called to testify before congress to answer for actions which may or may not have been illegal, but which almost everyone would consider immoral.

I will frame the question this way: “If the influence of religion were as strong and pervasive today as it was in the middle ages, would the financial crisis have happened?” To put it another way, would the Wall Street bankers have engaged in the kinds of actions that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse if they believed wholeheartedly in Christianity?

Before going any further I have to clarify exactly what kind of actions I’m talking about. Let’s keep it very simple and limit our scope to what we know the bankers at Goldman Sachs did, which is to sell financial products to investors and bet against those same products, earning a profit from the loss of others. For those who find any economic talk confusing, it’s enough to understand that these financial products were essentially bundles of loans such as home-mortgages made to thousands of people who couldn’t afford them. When you bundle a bunch of these loans together, it doesn’t matter if a few people can’t repay them because at least a few people will and that’s how you earn money. Unless of course almost nobody can pay and the whole thing blows up in your face. Then you lose, the home-buyers lose, the entire population of the country loses because so much of the economy was tied up in these things, and even people on the other side of the world lose because when the American economy goes down it drags many other economies with it. The only winner is Goldman Sachs, who bet on the failure and whose losses are covered by a massive taxpayer bailout.

If such a thing is not immoral, I don’t know what is. But as an atheist, how can I justify condemning it as such?

There are plenty of nonreligious ethical systems, but each is riddled with problems. Most of these systems are Consequentialist, judging an action in terms of whether the good it causes outweighs the harm. Utilitarianism is generally a good way for an atheist to justify a moral claim, but it’s not perfect. For instance, if you could save a million people from slow death by torturing one child, utilitarianism recommends you torture the child because the good clearly outweighs the harm. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” as Mr. Spock would say. But who would really want to say that torturing a child can ever be a moral action? We can certainly condemn Goldman on utilitarian grounds because it’s clear that far more people suffered than benefited from what they did, but this clearly doesn’t hold as much weight as a condemnation backed by Divine Authority.

Some nonreligious ethical systems are based not on the consequences of an action but on the intention, which address cases in which a person with good intentions inadvertently causes harm or vice versa. Kant’s categorical imperative is something like this—asking us to consider before taking an action whether we would like to live in a world in which everyone behaved the same way. By such a calculation we can condemn things such as laziness and self-indulgence because it’s clear the world would be a far worse place if everyone in it were lazy and self-indulgent. The problem, of course, is that plenty of harm can and is caused by people who believe they have the best of intentions. I’m sure Scott Roeder believed that the world would be a better place if everyone followed his lead and murdered doctors who performed abortions, but the harm done to the victims’ families and to the women who might suffer as a result is, I believe, a more important consideration than the killer’s ‘good’ intentions. So while we can certainly condemn Goldman Sachs on these grounds as well—it’s obvious they had only their own best interests in mind and if everyone behaved as they did it would be the end of civilization as we know it—but it’s just not the same as saying that their actions were wrong because God deems them wrong.

To paraphrase Dostoevsky, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” And indeed, without a Divine Authority to impose rules on us, we are left to make our own rules. We are free to adopt any ethical system we like, or no ethical system at all. Wall Street bankers, by in large, are probably not the religious type. I’d be willing to bet that most of them view life as a game with winners and loser, and live by the maxim that “He who dies with the most toys wins.” They don’t judge their actions based on any ethical system, but operate according to the law of the jungle. This is in fact the way the corporate structure works—every decision is based on how it affects the bottom line. If it increases profits, do it. If it hurts revenue, don’t do it. Never is any consideration ever given to whether the action is harmful to others. The morality or immorality of an action is immaterial. Everything is permitted.

So if you want to argue that things might be very different if religion were still as powerful a force today as it once was, I’d be willing to listen. If the CEO of Goldman Sachs had been burdened with the worry of whether his actions were immoral in God’s eyes, and whether allowing deals with the potential to destroy the world economy to be made would earn him eternal punishment in Hell, perhaps he would have decided that in some cases there are more important considerations than the bottom line.

Of course, you’d have to make this hypothetical extend even farther, as it’s quite obvious that any CEO who doesn’t make increasing profit the top priority will quickly be replaced by another CEO without such moral scruples. This is why there are no religious people on Wall Street and if there are, it takes a back-seat to the demands of the job. If you want to argue that religion could have prevented the financial crisis, you’d have to insist that everybody be religious—the owner, the CEO, the board of directors, and every last shareholder. They would all have to agree that doing God’s will is more important than earning a profit.

But I still haven’t defeated your argument. The central question is whether we’re better off believing in God for the sake of morality, and insisting that it would only work if we all believed in God does nothing to defeat this point.

So here’s my objection: Belief in God does not contain any inherent moral prescriptions. By one person’s interpretation of God, homosexuality is an abomination, but by another’s it’s perfectly acceptable. By one person’s interpretation, murder is never justified, but by another’s there are times when it’s not only acceptable but obligatory. By one person’s interpretation, God loves all human beings, but by another’s God only favors one particular group and all others are damned. Even if everyone on the planet were a theist—even if we all believed in the Judeo-Christian God and accepted Biblical Scripture as Divinely Inspired and a legitimate source for making moral determinations, there are enough conflicting passages and possible interpretations of these passages for anyone to justify anything.

And yes, one could even use Scripture to justify derivatives trading, credit default swaps, and all the rest of it. “Prosperity preachers” are all the rage these days—charlatans turning Christ’s message on its head and saying that God wants us to be rich. People can and do use their religion to justify the pursuit of wealth, and simply dismiss the poor and anyone harmed by reckless profit-seeking as lacking God’s grace. If someone is poor it’s their own fault. God has blessed us all with the potential to live in prosperity, and anyone who doesn’t take advantage is ignoring the gift that God is offering. If Wall Street bankers sell bogus financial products to investors knowing that these products are going to cost their investors money, God is on the side of the bankers. The investors should have known better. If Goldman Sachs executives award themselves multi-million dollar bonuses with money given to them by taxpayers, they are merely accepting God’s good blessing as everyone is entitled to do. The citizens could have refused to bail them out, but they didn’t, so the grace of God is with the executives and not the citizens.

So I must conclude that the argument fails—that there’s no good reason to believe the world would be a better place if we all believed in God, or even if we were all Christian. Right and wrong are concepts completely independent of religion. Religion merely offers a worldview whereby we can consider these concepts embedded into the fabric of the universe.

And this, I would even go so far as to say, is actually more harmful than the belief that we determine right and wrong ourselves. One who believes that murder is not only justified but that it is occasionally endorsed by the very creator of the universe is not going to have a second thought about killing. On the other hand, one who understands that the rightness or wrongness of an action is up to us to determine will have to seriously consider its aspects both in terms of intention and probable consequences.

My favorite framework for looking at morality absent of Divine Authority comes from Albert Camus, who insists that values are not intrinsic to nature or determined by any calculation but that they are brought into the world by us. In The Rebel, he writes that every time a slave refuses an order from a master, a value is created. The slave draws a line in the sand, saying that he or she would rather die than follow the order, and thus that order becomes wrong. The most obvious illustration of the creation of values in such a way would be the American Revolution, when patriots stood up and died for the principles of freedom and independence from tyranny. There is nothing inherently good about freedom and nothing inherently evil about tyranny, but we collectively decided to shape our values in such a way.

And so I would condemn Wall Street bankers and the rest of the giant corporations and financial institutions who place profit over the common good not on religious grounds, nor even on utilitarian grounds, but simply because I choose to. Justice is not built into the fabric of the universe. As rational beings, it is our responsibility to bring justice to the universe if we decide to, and I believe that if we all understood that it is our decision, we would decide to condemn the kinds of practices that led to the financial crisis and make sure nobody can ever get away with them again.

God’s death—as Nietzsche framed the decline of religion’s influence over humanity—does not have to be a tragedy. It can be an opportunity. We can finally stop relying on an outside source of morality and take responsibility for creating a morality of our own. A moral system based on reason, arrived at through rational debate and discussion, and implemented through the force of our own will would, in my mind, have far greater value than one that relies on ancient texts and depends on each person’s own interpretation of what God wants.

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