The Immoral Argument for God

In philosophy of religion and apologetics the moral and religious arguments for God proceed from the universality of religious beliefs or morality to the conclusion that God must exist. As C. S. Lewis describes the moral argument, there must be a universal moral law, or else ethical or moral disagreements would make no sense, all moral criticism would be meaningless, promise keeping would be unnecessary, and no one would think to make ethical excuses.  From here Lewis extrapolates to a moral Law Giver who made us like himself, instilling a universal moral law within us. The religious argument proceeds along the same line, extrapolating from a universal or perhaps sui generis religious experience to the existence of God.  This presumption is taken up in modern religious studies in the positing of a sui generis notion of religion (all religions can be traced to the same source) and the presumption behind the moral argument is taken up in modern ethical studies in the notion that the primary work of an ethicist is to study ethical quandaries in an effort to arrive at correct decisions (reducing ethics to human decision and will). In both instances there is the presumption that the impetus to morality and religion can be extracted from the particulars of culture (in pure reason or transcendental experience), as if there is a universal reason and experience not mediated by culture.

An inherent problem to both of the arguments concerns, not just their legitimacy (which might be preserved), but the mode of argumentation or reason undergirding the arguments, which more or less reigns in both secular and religious studies. In theological studies, for example, there is a common presumption that universal understandings of religion and morality are parallel to the religion and morality of the Bible and that there is no need to challenge either the impetus behind religion or morality as they are universally experienced.  This strikes me as false at several levels: it is not true to the deadly nature of religion and morality on display all around us and it is not true to the biblical depiction of human morality and religion. What seems obvious (and we do not need atheists to make the argument, as this is the biblical picture) is that human religion is foundational to humankind and that foundation is murderous (the working premise of the theory of René Girard and of various apocalyptic theologies). In turn, morality may indeed be instinctive and innate, such that the human sense of justice, morality and law, whether corporate (giving rise to war) or personal (giving rise to murder) is directly connected to the worst forms of evil, justified as part of a righteous cause (which is not to reduce all morality and justice to immorality and injustice but simply to indicate the human bent).  

Kant’s moral argument demonstrates the potential problem with every moral argument, in that it does not conclude to any specific or definitive moral content and it has been deployed in the name of the worst sorts of evil (see here).  A specific result of the Kantian notion that ultimate moral duty is accessible through reason, is the presumption that knowing the right and recognizing evil need not be informed by Christian faith. Human reason and moral sensibility are presumed sufficient to arrive at the truth, and Christ is a prototype of what can be otherwise known by reason, though we may still need rescue from out of the world, even in Kant’s understanding.  The general result (of Kant and the Enlightenment) is a division between theology and philosophy of religion, in which certain topics, such as the problem of evil, have been partitioned off from theological explanations of the Cross, and theological explanations of sin have not engaged the possibility (which I presume is the biblical explanation of evil) that human morality and religion are (potentially?) immoral and evil. This is rather odd, considering that we live at a point in history in which it is nearly universally recognized that the worst of human atrocities, the Holocaust, was carried out by the heirs of the Enlightenment. Given the realities of history and the actual arguments which were set forth in the wake of Kant, the alternative to the received religious and moral philosophical arguments for God might begin, not from a presumed positive moral and religious understanding, but from the opposite. What I will call the “Immoral Argument” is a partial indictment of the traditional arguments but also a suggestion that the inverse of these arguments points directly to the specifics and necessity of the work of Christ.

To lay the groundwork for the immoral argument, the two notions of evil, privation theory and radical evil (a term coined by Kant), have to be considered in light of the Cross. Assigning evil, either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in philosophical theology, precludes grappling with evil as radical or diabolical (the biblical picture of what the Cross defeated).  Rather than pit these two theories against one another, radical evil (the notion that evil is its own ground) might be equated with the lie of the serpent in Genesis, the covenant with death in Isaiah, and with the prominent role of the diabolical in the Gospels. It is not simply a theory to be judged true or false, but in the Bible it is a false possibility, as it is a lie that is posed and acted upon as part of human reality. Interestingly, Kant hits upon the notion of radical evil as part of his depiction of human freedom and autonomy, which fits with the biblical lie of sin (the drive to human autonomy and an alternative knowledge).

In defending perfect freedom, Kant requires both a will acting without constraint or contingency (so as to be free) and reason, which is self-evident and self-grounding. It is this combination of free will and reason which gives rise to his categorical imperative: “It is there I discover that what I do can only be unconditionally good to the extent I can will what I have done as a universal law.” The will contains the possibility of the good as it enacts the universal moral law uncovered through reason. His concise formula of this imperative, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” is the compelling force behind duty and morality.  He concludes that “If one finds the right and acts on it from the motive of a purely good will this is to walk the path of perfect moral duty.”

Even in Kant’s own explanation, the possibility that one is committing evil, under the compulsion or conviction that he is doing the good, poses itself. Given the moral maxim that one should always tell the truth, he can find no exception, even when it might mean the death of an innocent person (a murderer asking after a hidden victim must be answered truthfully, according to Kant). “I must not lie – confronted with the temptation to do so, I sense the categorical imperative as the claim upon my will. I ought to tell the truth for the truth’s sake. With that pure motive, without self-interest, I decide to tell the truth; morality has prevailed.” Kant is prepared to let the chips fall where they may on behalf of moral duty.

 The truth for truth’s sake seems to have taken flight of any earthly consideration or particular contingent circumstance. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Only an ethics based on such an imperative can be autonomous, that is, free of all religious and anthropological presuppositions. Only by acting on the basis of such an imperative can an agent be free. Such an ethic is based on reason alone and can therefore be distinguished from religion, politics, and etiquette.”   Jacques Lacan claims, in his critique of the Critique of Practical Reason, that Kant displays “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.” 

To arrive at a non-contingent necessary reason, the basis for true freedom, reason cannot be grounded in anything else; it must be its own ground. But this self-grounding reason also poses the possibility of a self-grounding evil. His imperative does not specify any particular context or content but poses itself as a self-evident and absolute duty. Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem and the Marques de Sade both appeal to the categorical imperative to justify genocide and murder, which coincide with their sense of moral duty. That is, much like Kant, they arrive at radical evil through the categorical imperative, with the difference that they choose to act upon it.

So, what we call the “moral law” may be nothing more than the superego or the law of sin and death. What Kant calls the categorical imperative can and has been read as a form of moral masochism in which one would serve the father, which could be mistaken for God or God’s law, but which is nothing other than one’s own father image (Freud’s superego, the source of the drive to masochism and sadism). Kant’s moral imperative (or something like it) has been taken up by societies and individuals as a pure form of deadly desire, which Paul sums up as the dynamic of the body of death.

The incapacity of the will Paul describes (doing what he does not want and not doing what he wants) is not due to a lack of a sense of duty or an ignorance of the law. There is no one more duty bound or more steeped in moral and legal imperatives than Pharisaical Paul, but this duty drives him to arrest Christians and consent to their death. It is precisely the Pauline categorical imperative which makes him the chief of sinners, but Paul assumes everyone is subject to the same desire and the same law which give rise to universal immorality. So if we were to make a moral or religious argument of Paul’s theology of salvation, it would be an argument beginning from immorality: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1). The exposure of universal moral and religious failure in the Bible would seem to weigh against appeal to an an innate positive moral capacity but this also seems to pose another possibility.

Something is displaced in both the moral and religious experience of most people, but this displacement or negation also points to what is hidden from the understanding. When the Hebrew prophets confront idolaters, this is depicted as a lifting of the covers or an exposure of something hidden, which is meant to shame them and bring about repentance. This means the hiding must include repression or hiding from the truth which the prophets bring to consciousness. The hiding of the first couple, the hiding of the Jews behind false idolatrous religion (or ancestor worship and necromancy in Isaiah), or what Paul describes as a hiding behind the Law in Galatians, is dependent upon the repression and negation of what must be available at an unconscious level. Paul’s argument is not that this is a peculiar experience, as all are called to repent from what at some level, they must know to be a falsehood.

Neither the typical religious or moral intuition point, in and of themselves to God, but in their positive form they constitute a self-grounding system (on the order of the categorical imperative and the presumptions behind radical evil). The experience of Paul in Romans 7, for example, depends on the negation and absence of God. God the Father is negated by an orientation to the law (the law serves in place of Abba); the experience of life in the Son is negated by the “I” or the ego; and life in the Spirit is negated by the dynamics of “this body of death.” This trinitarian negativity constitutes an identity in which God is unavailable but indicated, even in his absence. Trust in this system, in Paul’s explanation, is exposed in the agony (Ro. 7) and evil (Ro. 3) it produces. To stick to the law, to the categorical imperative, or to the lie of radical evil, ensures that one will never encounter the God of the Bible, but the danger which Paul warns of and implicit in the moral and religious argument, is that one will mistake the absolute of the moral law for God.

Perhaps this pertains to the legitimacy of the moral and religious arguments only to the extent that they depend on the notions that there is universal access to the moral law and a universally positive religious experience from which one can extrapolate by means of a neutral, objective, and universal reason to an understanding of God. This may not be a wholesale invalidation of some form of the arguments (a weak form?), but it would seem to call for an alternative understanding of reason, and a relinquishing of the notion that there is access to a universal and definitive moral law.

Maybe all my argument amounts to is that there is access to God only through Christ but even this understanding contains its own moral and religious argument as even in his absence, in immorality and false religion, God leaves his trace.

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.