Hear me out here…
It may be possible to have ethics and “morality” without God (so say the new atheists, in any case). But from my standpoint, that’s a far cry from a foundation for justice or a real understanding of the good and the evil we experience.
I see it this way: we can have societal expectations and rules, but these have limited authority in any context but the current one, and even then are somewhat questionable. In other words, we may be perfectly justified in dragging someone to court or prison, but we don’t really have a sound argument to call their actions “unjust”, not in a universal sense. The question comes down to a, “Who says?” If both parties think their actions proper and justified, who ultimately determines what is just? A man? Society? The one who can assert authority, either through tongue or sword?
Those who worship God assert that he is the one who makes that determination, thus defining what is truly right and wrong, and providing the background for our grasp of what is “ethical” or moral. Some alternatives are (no claim to exhaustiveness here):
1. A stark naturalism that has to reject any concept of good and evil and justice – or at least a redefinition of these terms in contradiction of the sense we actually use them of human experience. Basically, we are just collections of matter consuming energy. Things we don’t appreciate or enjoy happen, as do things we appreciate and enjoy. But to call any action “unjust” is to give it more meaning than this sort of naturalistic world can support. One might even go so far as to say that our sense of consciousness is really just a false impression, that we are really just collections of material operating under some well-developed control systems. A system is able to not work as a designer wants it to. But if there is no designer, in what sense can we say the “machine” doesn’t work right? It’s operating just as a jumbled collection of material would, right?
2. An understanding of good and evil as some sort of historical-social phenomenon. Right and wrong and justice are the elements of culture that keep a culture functioning. Things that cause cultural shift and change are “wrong,” while things that maintain it are “good.” We are still left with the fact that as changes occur, what people consider good and bad change. Thus there is no sense of justice over time and place. We have no right to call out as evil earlier generations for engaging in war or patriarchy because we have a different perspective.
3. Similar to the previous option, but going in a slightly different direction; an understanding of good and evil as some sort of historical-social phenomenon. Right and wrong and justice are the elements of culture that keep a culture developing in a positive direction. But inherent in this is a problem. What is truly “good” for the system? Is it growth? Economic success, the ability to provide? And provide for what? Yourself? A family? A community? Or is developing going too far? As with the previous option, we are left with: Why should we call changes in patriarchy and civil rights “good”. Maybe future generations will view us as backwards and silly because of our allowance of these and other actions. Maybe we’re not as advanced as we like to think we are. Once again, there is no justice over place and time in this scenario.
Any other thoughts or comments? I know this is not exhaustive, and that I am no expert. I don’t use the right lingo, I’m sure. But I have experienced pain and joy. I have an idea of how things can be either wrong or right, and this not varying just because whims change. Even if that means I am wrong in any of what I do and think. And I believe my actions actually matter, that they do have import in the universe (dare I say it, in God’s creation). All this seems to fit with what Christianity has taught: that God has set the standard; that morality is not something we define and can change when it no longer suits us; that man defining morality apart from God seems quite natural in our current spiritual condition, but that he wants to heal us of that delusion.