I have in my discussions on religion made the comment that to discuss the bad (or perceived bad) properties of a God(s) for the unbeliever is not good logic as a thing must first exist before we can discuss what moral properties it may or may not posses.

This comment was directly influenced by the Kantian responses to the ontological argument for God's existence.

The reply I usually get is something to the effect of... "Can we not discuss Sauron's morality, or some sort of other fictitious being's moral status".

So my question will be this: is there merit to debating the moral nature of a deity you do not think exists? Or is the moral nature of a being predicated on the fact that it must first exist before we can make criticism on its moral status?

  • 1
    There's a difference between academically discussing the topic and why one wants to discuss it. I suspect some atheologians want to discuss God's properties not out of curiosity, but because they're searching for an excuse not to believe.
    – user18800
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:52
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    I think it is worth noting that a discussion tends to involve more than one person. If any of the people involved believe the entity exists, then the discussion has as much merit as if they all believed. Jan 8, 2016 at 22:26
  • @BenPiper: I really don't need any excuses for not believing in something frankly unbelievable. Discussing the morality of a nonexisting god has the same merit as solving crossword puzzles.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 12, 2016 at 19:35
  • To 1st commenter: I think that people discuss God's properties because they are trying to reinforce their belief. 2nd commenter: there is no merit unless you are trying to convince people of something that does 'exist' (hedge funds or something else non-physical). 3rd commenter: I agree - to paraphrase: "one should not needlessly discuss entities" (which not everyone agrees exist). Agreement is necessary unless you are just Proselytizing. Then simply be up front about doing that.
    – user16869
    Apr 26, 2016 at 16:27

6 Answers 6


There is at least academic merit to debating moral or any other nature of an entity you do not think exists simply because it may turn out to exist after all, we are fallible. Of course, if you do not think it strongly enough you may consider it a waste of your time in practical terms. But keep in mind that other people may think otherwise, so if you wish to influence them arguments involving non-existent (to you) entities may be helpful even in practice. Even if it is an explicitly fictional entity, like Sauron, the argument is not entirely worthless because such fictions are often used as proxies for real life situations that do occur.

Kant's key objection to the ontological argument was that existence is not a predicate. So it's the existence of a being which is predicated on what it is taken to be, its essence, not the other way around. Morality may be essential to somebody's concept of God, but not to somebody else's, so presented with God's existence question in a world ruled by an evil being they will answer it differently.

And generally speaking there is merit to discussing essences without any regard for existence. Mathematics is full of objects that most people do not think exist, but their properties are meaningfully discussed and explored. If one does not have to believe in the Platonic realm to discuss the possibility of squaring a circle then one does not have to believe in God to discuss the morality of creating a world full of evil.


Arguably, fictional beings (at least ones with well established fictional histories) can possess moral qualities, if we take morality as describing structural patterns of behavior in relationship to a context. This, however, is a very different way of looking at morality than Kant's.

As you imply, there is a substantial school of philosophy that strictly rejects all discussion of counterfactuals as nonsense (influenced by the rules of logic, which dictate that introduction of any counterfactual premise opens the door to every possible conclusion).

Whether or not you ally yourself with this school of thought perhaps depends on whether you believe there are alternate routes to useful knowledge than those that follow only the pathways of strict logical proof.


My remark is, probably, trivial, but people discuss moral properties of various persons, including gods and demons, in order to express their own vision of what is good and what is wrong. From this point of view it does not matter who is the subject of the discussion. Therefore, when you are debating the moral properties of deities, you, first, are debating this vision of this concert opponent, and are advancing what do you think about what is good and what is wrong. Again, this is trivial, may be, but this means that there is a merit even in such discussing.

  • A better way is for both parties of an argument to try to prove the other's points. Now you have a horse race!
    – user16869
    Apr 26, 2016 at 16:32

Philosophy has long found it valuable to consider what it would be moral for a fictitious being to do in given circumstances if they existed (the circumstances often involving railway trains and people on the tracks).

In the case of God, there are a couple of ways we might find value in considering God's morality:

  • It can help us to define our terms. Much argument over the existence of God is vague about what is meant by "God". If "God" just means the creator of the universe then there is no morality being considered, whereas if a being has to be in some sense "good" to merit the title "God" (as in Zoroastrianism, for example) then we still need to work out what is meant by "good" (in the sense of deontic, utilitarian, or virtue ethics? How do we deal with the Euphyphro problem?).
  • As infatuated suggests, if consideration of the morality of God leads to a contradiction, that is a valuable result because it means that God (according to that definition) cannot exist (barring extreme arguments that logic itself cannot be trusted: if we accept those we might as well give up!)
  • It can help us understand morality as a whole, just as stories of Sauron or people throwing other people in front of runaway trains do: considering the morality of reported actions, real or imaginary helps us to understand how morality works and is developed.
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    Those Tram problems or whatever are just awful - completely pointless as far as I am concerned.
    – user16869
    Apr 26, 2016 at 16:29

Yes, there's a point in discussing those properties even before the very existence of God is demonstrated. Because it may be argued that those properties are essential to demonstration of the subject under examination. For example it could be argued that God has to be all-benevolent or it contradicts His existence because creation which is a necessary part of any concept of God can be understood as the utmost act of benevolence. So if we rule out benevolence as a necessary property of God, we never even get to proving His existence.

As a general rule, there is nothing wrong with hypothesizing about any concept before proceeding to actual demonstration of it.

  • Best to assume no properties or qualities whatsoever. This is the easiest to posit, and no one will argue over anything about it. Then of course, getting the entity to do anything becomes a problem, but hey, one thing at a time!
    – user16869
    Apr 26, 2016 at 16:30

To say that anyone who doesn't believe in a particular god can't discuss the supposed properties of that god as expressed by believers simply defines non–believers out of the argument.

It's like saying people don't believe in creation can't discuss its scientific merit.

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