Can we be good without God?

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.

Conclusion

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!

5 thoughts on “Can we be good without God?

  1. morsec0de May 22, 2009 / 11:55 am

    “2. Atheism provides no foundation for morality”

    And it doesn’t pretend to.

    That’s like saying “directions on how to tie your shoes provide no foundation for morality.” It makes no sense.

  2. C.A. May 22, 2009 / 6:26 pm

    Atheism is NOT an ethical system, and it never claimed to be. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god or gods, that is it. I could ask you how can you be moral and not believe in Zeus or Thor? It provides no moral or ethical guidance. Atheism is NOT a world view. But Atheists do have morals and values, and from what I have seen better morals and values than theists (we are not the ones raping children, and helping the spread of AIDS).

    Many Atheists subscribe to humanism, or more specifically secular humanism for their moral guidance. Not all Atheists follow the same ethical system, or even secular humanism just like how Protestants and Catholics believe different things (even within those separate belief systems).

    Secular humanism upholds reason, justice, scientific inquiry and rejects the supernatural as the basis of moral reflection. The basic tenets of SH are: The need to test beliefs, reason, evidence, scientific method, fulfillment, growth and creativity, search for truth, this is life, and building a better world.

    Personally I find myself to be a very upstanding person on good moral ground. I don’t need a 2000 year old book that itself has “morals” in it that today would get you thrown in jail (such as selling you daughter into slavery). I also don’t need the threat of eternal damnation to be good.

    • theurbanpastor May 22, 2009 / 7:56 pm

      Dear C.A.
      Thanks for your response. I appreciate the opportunity to have a discussion in which we generate ‘light’ and not simply ‘heat’! I hope that I haven’t caricatured the atheistic position. I hate it when people do that to Christians. I always want to try and put the opposing view better than they might put it themselves. Not sure I always pull it off. But it seems like a laudable aim! Let me respond to your points and after that others may want to chip in.
      I understand that atheism isn’t an ethical system. I accept that. But that’s my point. If we get rid of God, as atheism does, there are some major casualties. I don’t think that’s a sufficient reason to believe Christianity. There are other good reasons for that; namely evidence! You say, ‘Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god or gods, that is it’. But that’s not it. You can’t believe something as significant as ‘there is no God’ and expect that belief not to influence your behaviour in some way.
      In attacking atheism’s amorality I wanted to draw attention to its powerlessness to provide a framework for sensible moral decision making. You claim that lots of atheists buy into secular humanism. You may be right. But once again, my point is that whatever moral system someone chooses there’s no persuasive reason to choose it except its’ appeal. I guess my issue with secular humanism is what compelling reason or obligation is there for me to believe its tenets. Why should I believe what it teaches?
      You say that secular humanism upholds reason, justice and scientific enquiry as, of course, does Christianity. But the difference is that there’s a coherent foundation for doing so in traditional Christian theology. That’s not the case in secular humanism, as I’ve understood it. I’m happy to be proved wrong.
      I don’t doubt the sincerity of your pursuit of your morality, neither do I doubt the integrity of your claim to be moral. But why are you moral? And why should you exepct anyone else to be moral? What basis have you got for doing anything if someone else chooses not to be moral?
      I do think you’re a little unfair to the Christian position in your closing paragraph. I’ll assume you wanted to reach a rhetorical crescendo before signing off! The issue of how we understand the Old Testament is an important one. And one on which atheists usually have a field day. I don’t want to deny that what happens in the Old Testament is, at points, shocking. But let’s not be disingenuous in the way we interpret the Bible. That’s not fair. I’d be happy to try and explore why God did the things that He did and why He taught the things that He did. I think that’s more productive than writing off a volume of theological work that Jesus accepted as authoritative.
      Just for the record; I don’t try to be good because I’m scared. I try to be good because I’ve been saved. That Jesus Christ died and rose again so that I could have my sins forgiven and experience a life of transformation through the gift of his Holy Spirit has changed what I do, how I do it and why I do it. And that spiritual experience can belong to anyone that will turn in trust to Jesus Christ. I’m no longer scared of hell, condemnation or eternal torment. Christ died for my sins. Why should I be? He copped the divine flak so that I don’t have to. What’s to be scared of?

      • C.A. May 24, 2009 / 11:21 pm

        I’m not going to hark on the lack of evidence for belief in Christianity/Islam/Judaism/Thor/Zeus. That is not what this is about.

        You said “You can’t believe something as significant as ‘there is no God’ and expect that belief not to influence your behaviour in some way.” What if somebody said to you ‘You can’t believe something as significant as ‘there is no fairy at the bottom of the garden’ and expect that belief not to influence your behavior in some way.’? The argument does not hold water. It is saying how can somebody be moral without believing as I believe. Are tribes in Africa, without any knowledge of Christianty , without morals? No. Their morals may be different than ours in some way but they still have morals. A belief in your particular God, prophet, unicorn, or whatever is not required to be a good person. And a lack of belief in one is just the same.

        If you are trying to say that a lack of belief in god effects behavior in a negative way you would be dead wrong. Every atheist I have run into has been a happy, moral, fulfilled person. We are not the ones blowing up abortion clinics, flying planes into buildings, or raping children.

        Not to say that the actions of a few define the religious as a whole, and the same for atheism. But I think that it illustrates that having no belief in god does not mean that somebody is a bad person. You can live your life just the same, being happy and productive, and have zero belief in god. It is in no way required to be a moral person.

        You also said that there is not a reason to be moral in secular humanism. I would argue that there is. If somebody follows the tenets of SH they are doing so because they know that their moral actions better society, themselves, and future generations. SH is about humanity and making it better for both yourself and your family/friends but also for the future. If somebody is not moral and doesn’t follow the tenets then society does not advance, and things improve less. I find that to be a better reason to be moral than “well God wants me to, Jesus died for my sins.” as you point to a book.

  3. Bo Bennett March 5, 2014 / 1:59 pm

    Dear Urban Pastor,

    Thank you for your article and your overall diplomatic communication style. It is a pleasure to read the thoughts and beliefs of civil people who appear genuinely concerned with understanding rather than pushing an agenda.

    Morality for the atheist is a end itself—not a means to please a god, earn eternal reward, or avoid a fiery hell. Positing a God with objective morality is a way we can relieve the cognitive uneasiness of knowing that morality is subjective and changing. It is a cognitive relief mechanism for those who are desire a just world where rewards and punishments are handed out in the hereafter, and those who have less tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity when it comes to morals. Those who espouse belief in this God can and do claim moral superiority. If you *know* what is *certainly* moral, and I only *believe* what is moral for our culture, in our time, in a certain situation—you win. However, this claimed knowledge does not help anyone in the real world regarding moral dilemmas—it only hinders rational debate and the process of examining the situational variables to come up with the best decision. Positing an objective morality is harmless in itself—the dangerous assertion is that such morality can be known from the subjective process of interpreting highly ambiguous passages from a subjectively chosen holy book, by a flawed and imperfect human mind that is prone to countless cognitive biases and forms beliefs based on environmental, social, and cultural factors.

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