I had a hugely stimulating discussion last night on the issue of atheistic morality. As is usually the case, I can never quite remember what I ought to say until some time afterwards. This is something I did a while ago on the issue of whether we can be good without God.
It’s a crucial question. It’s one answered in great measure by W.L Craig’s article ‘No God. No Good?’ But if misunderstood it might be taken for arrogance. We’re not saying that Christians are morally superior people. We’re not asking whether there’s any credible rationale for morality apart from the existence of God. It’s perhaps helpful to clearly articulate what the question is not asking.
The question is not must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? It’s clear that theists and atheists can alike live ethically.
The question is not is it possible to have a system of ethics without reference to God? It’s clear that a system of ethics can be formulated regardless of ideology.
The question is not can we recognise objective moral values without God? It’s clear that regardless of our spiritual, philosophical and ideological views people recognise that we ought to love our children.
The question is whether morality has any foundation apart from recognising the existence of God. I argue that there isn’t. There aere two parts to the answer. Forgive the unimaginative headings. At least they’re clear!
1. Theism provides a sure foundation for morality
Consider the case for morality built on the foundation of God’s existence.
a. The existence of God provides a rationale for moral values
To have objective moral values there needs to be an independent standard of right and wrong. This means that right and wrong remain unalterable regardless of whether anyone believes them or observes them. The existence of God provides that objective, independent foundation. Objective moral values are rooted in Him. His character and activity provides the norm by which morality is to be measured.
b. The existence of God provides a rationale for moral duties
The obligation to be moral exists because God issues divine commands that constitute our moral duties. These are not arbitrary requirements; they’re derived from His nature. When asked, Jesus summarised the whole moral duty of man using two great commandments. We are to love the Lord our God with all our strength, soul, heart and mind and we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. That’s the foundation for affirming morality or condemning immorality.
c. The existence of God provides a rationale for moral accountability
Since God exists He will hold us accountable for everything we’ve said, thought and done. Righteousness will be vindicated and unrighteousness will be punished. From the perspective of eternity everyone will appreciate that we live in a moral universe. And so the moral choices that we make in this life are invested with an eternal significance. Therefore theism provides a coherent, rational foundation for morality. Then, there’s atheism.
2. Atheism provides no foundation for morality
Consider the case for morality built on the foundation of God’s non-existence.
a. The denial of God provides no grounds for moral values
If God does not exist there is no independent standard of morality. There’s morality but there’s no basis for it. Atheists can’t deny the existence of universal morality. Nor do they want to. But they just can’t account for it. Many argue that as a result of socio-biological pressures a ‘herd morality’ has evolved which aids the perpetuation of humanity. For them, morality is nothing more than an advantageous mutation to ensure humanity is numbered among the fittest that survive.
b. The denial of God provides no grounds for moral duties
On the atheistic view, God is the main casualty. But He’s not the sole casualty. There’s us. In throwing God out of the window we’ve also thrown out the conditions we need for morality and the conditions we need for human significance. If we deny the existence of God then we also deny the uniqueness of humankind. There’s nothing special about us because if there’s no God then there’s no image of God. And so as Dr William Lane Craig put it, ‘we’re just an accidental by-product of nature which has evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time’ No God. No Good? In atheism human beings become worthless for two reasons.
i. We become worthless because we’re just sophisticated animals, but no more than that. We’re not qualitatively different from any other animal species. And so if we’re prepared to do lab experiments on rats, guess who’s next!
ii. But we also become worthless because naturalism flattens the distinction between the mind and the brain. In amongst the assumption that our thought processes are little more than the reactions of various chemicals in the brain, we may have lost sight of the fact that what we might describe as ‘me’ has just been obliterated.
Atheist morality therefore comes out of thin air. The humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz summarises the issue brilliantly when he writes, ‘The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?’ Forbidden Fruit. If we accept the naturalistic explanation of reality then we have no grounds to condemn immorality or affirm morality. What we praise or criticise is nothing more than an opinion. And one opinion is no more significant than any other. What this means is that the Jew and the Nazi can disagree but there’s no grounds for saying that one of them is right and one is wrong. That’s frightening. And atheism can do nothing to stop it happening again.
c. The denial of God provides no grounds for moral accountability
If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether we’re a sinner or a saint. There’s no reckoning. There’s nothing we can say to someone who wants to live purely out of self interest. In fact we may as well follow their example. In fact, not to do so would be foolish. Atheistic ethicists know that this is the logical conclusion of their position. One of them writes, ‘We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me … Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality’ Kai Nelson Why Should I be Moral? Atheist friends of mine have argued that we’re moral because it fulfils our pleasures, personal self interest and provides social benefit. But there are lots of moral decisions that conflict with those so that can’t be right. Self sacrifice is perhaps the clearest example. It’s never in our self interest to sacrifice ourselves! Life is too short to jeopardize my comfort for the sake of someone else. So consistent atheists shouldn’t volunteer for the Armed Services and fight to defend our country.
If God exists then there’s a sound foundation for morality. If He doesn’t then it’s a ‘free for all’. William Lane Craig wants us to go further than this. The existence of morality is evidence of God’s existence. And he’s right. How could it be otherwise? If we think that there are universal objective moral values then this must be evidence of the existence of a universal God. If we think that there are universal moral obligations then this must be evidence of a transcendent being that has the right to impose them upon us. If we think that there is universal moral accountability then this must be evidence that there is someone to whom we must give an account. In conclusion theological meta-ethics do seem to be necessary for morality. We need God to be good.
But of course, we need to recognise the absence of neutrality in this conflict of interest. We’re no spiritual Switzerland. We’d like God to be dead. You see, if He exists then there are objective moral values, there’s an ‘ought’ to our lives and there’s a reckoning to face at the end. But if God is dead then morality is just a human convention which we’re free to flout without any expectation of being called to account for how we’ve lived. That might sound attractive but it actually renders all of human existence meaningless. And it’s wrong!