If There is No God, Are All Things Permitted?: A Conversation on the Meaning of Morality in a Godless Universe

Does it matter whether God exists or not? What difference does it make to our lives? Can we not still live meaningfully and morally whether there is a God or not? The Socratic Happy Hour is a society dedicated to hosting civil and convivial conversations about life’s biggest questions. If you’re a graduate student based here in Oxford, please join us on Monday, 24th October 2022 at the Head of the River Pub for a friendly conversation about these all important questions.

In his parable of the madman, Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous character declared in apocalyptic tones that ‘God is dead,’ that we are his murderers, and that the Almighty’s demise is an event of dizzying, if as yet only only dimly understood, moral and existential significance:

But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

Citing an equally famous passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov, Jean-Paul Sartre both described the moral implications of the death of God in similarly sweeping terms, and took this vision of a Godless, amoral cosmos as the starting point of his philosophy:

With him [God] disappears all possibility of finding values in an intelligible sky; there can no longer be any a priori good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it up; nowhere is it written that the good exists, that one ought to be honest, that one ought not to lie, since we are precisely on a level where there are simply men. Dostoevsky had written ‘If God didn’t exist, all would be permitted.’ There is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, all is permitted if God does not exist, and consequently, man is forsaken, because he finds neither in himself nor outside of himself any possibility to attach himself on. 

Of course, many atheists would disagree with Sartre, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche’s madman. Socrates famously argued that the Good was independent of the gods. Likewise, Kantians, Utilitarians, Pragmatists, and many more have attempted to offer alternative frameworks for making moral sense of our world for making moral choices in our lives; frameworks that do not rely on the existence of God. But how successful are these atheistic moral frameworks? Who has the better of the argument here? If there is no God, are all things permitted?

Join us Monday for a few pints and some semi-serious discussion of these big questions. Philosophy degree not required. All perspectives welcome.

And remember: Friends don’t let friends lead unexamined lives.



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