Can we be Good Without God? Morality and the Existence of God

 

“You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

 

I love this photo. Besides the double pun about being good for goodness sake, I think that it represents a prevalent view among secular humanists or atheists. The part that really struck me was their stance: “Humanism is the idea that you can be good without belief in God.” Now I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with this. Obviously you do not need belief in God to live a moral life. There are countless examples of unbelievers living far better and moral lives than most religious people. Scripture describes how the moral law is written on the hearts of all men and they naturally follow the law (Romans 2:14-15). In essence, an non-theist could follow the rules of morality and still disagree, however mistakenly, on the metaphysical basis of those rules. However, that is not necessarily the issue with morality and religion. Rather the question needs to be phrased, “can we be good without God?” In other words, if God does not exist, then are objective moral values and duties binding or are objective? I argue that if God exists, then objective moral values, moral accountability and moral duties are secured. However, if God does not exist, morality is a human creation, its non-binding, and wholly subjective. Here outlined is the moral argument for the existence of God:

 

(1.) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

(2.) Objective moral values and duties do exist.

(3).Therefore, God exists.

This is one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God. The premises of the argument (or the points) are formed in what is called a deductive argument. In other words, if the first two premises are true, then the conclusion follows necessarily and inescapably.

In order to avoid confusion, it is imperative to state the differences between objective and subjective. An example of objective truth is there is five dollars in my wallet, it is independently true and is not based on opinion. In contrast, subjective truth is based off of opinion. An example of a subjective truth is the appearance of my wallet is fashionable or looks cool. To sum it up, objective morality states that moral values are independent of opinion. They are objectively true regardless of the culture, history, geography or time.

Furthermore, my argument does not assert belief in God is required to live a moral life. On the contrary, secular naturalists or atheists can potentially, live better moral lives than Christians. I am not asking if we can be good with God–my question is can we be good without God? I am exploring the ontological basis for morality and not epistemology of we come to know morality. Moral ontology questions the reality of moral values while in contrast, moral epistemology questions how we come to know morality.

Moral epistemology objections are thus red herrings and they need not distract us from the main issue. As the atheist Paul Kurtz states, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

Premise 1: if God Does not Exist, Then Objective Moral Values and Duties do not Exist.

If God does not exist, there is no justification or accountability for objective moral values. That is to say without God, there would be no foundation outside of relativism. What relativism asserts is that morality is wholly-subjective and all moral values and duties have equal value. There would be no objective grounding or anchoring of moral values since there would be no transcendent source. William Lane Craig writes “If God does not exist, then it is difficult to see any reason to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true. Moreover, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything?” In essence, there would be nothing to impose morality upon us on a naturalistic world-view. This would leave one with nihilism which asserts that right or wrong does not exist. Michael Ruse is a scientist and discusses what morality looks like on an evolutionary world-view:

The position of the modern evolutionist… is that humans have an awareness of morality…because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth… Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves… Nevertheless,… such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction,… and any deeper meaning is illusory.

According to Ruse, under a naturalist world-view, morality has no objective meaning or truth. This is echoed by ethicist Richard Taylor who states that without God. “[ethicists] are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning. Taylor invites us to imagine the consequences of such a world-view. He writes:

Such actions, though injurious to their victims, are no more unjust or immoral than they would be if done by one animal to another. A hawk that seizes a fish from the sea kills it, but does not murder it; and another hawk that seizes the fish from the talons of the first takes it, but does not steal it—for none of these things is forbidden. And exactly the same considerations apply to the people we are imagining. Under naturalism, morality becomes completely relative or subjective, no right or wrongs, nor is there any absolute good or evil.

Richard Dawkins has said that, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” The consequence of of God not existing is that human beings lives are worthless and there is nothing objectively special about us. In essence, humans are nothing more than freaks of nature that came into existence by pure chance. We are without any objective purpose. We are nothing more than blobs of matter, with our only purpose in life is to reproduce and to survive, all the while, being cast on the speck of dust called Earth, lost in the dismal, cold, dark abyss of the universe.

A grave implication of moral relativism is that our moral behavior is deduced to being no better or worse than animals. The soldier who falls upon a grenade to save his comrades is no more praise worthy than an ant dying for its queen. Mother Teresa’s deeds are no more praise worthy than the atrocities that the Nazi’s committed during World War II. It makes no difference how one lives. If human beings are nothing more than primates, what makes us think we are no better than any other animal? To think that humans have objective moral worth is committing the bias of specism. Inevitably, if naturalism is true, then a consequence it becomes impossible for one to condemn war, oppression, or any ‘immoral’ acts. Likewise, one cannot praise one for being loving, advocate for equality, praise one for being charitable, or seek after justice. Ruse grimly states in his book Darwin Defended, that “the man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”  They do have have any intrinsic moral value at all.

As Richard Wurmbrand reported, Soviet prison guards and interrogators understood this all too well:

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflected on prisoners.

With the finality of death, it is irrelevant if one were to live like Mother Teresa or Hitler. As a result of natural selection and naturalism, one can live purely out of self-interest and live without any moral obligations. Kai Nielson describes that grimness of the implications of secular naturalism. He writes that “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.” It is fair to say that without God, there is good reasons to think that objective morality does not exists. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky best put it, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

So there are good reasons to think that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties are not binding. All we are left with is nihilism which ultimately leads to all of morality illusory at best. Julian Baggini rightly points out”If there is no single moral authority [i.e. no God] we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves … [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false? you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”

Premise (2) Objective Moral Values and Duties do Exist.

 

I believe that there are good reasons to think this. Things like brotherhood, equality, justice, kindness, and tolerance are objectively good, where as, malevolence and cruelty are objectively bad. For example, things like school shootings and murder children is morally wrong. Another example is the Holocaust was genuinely evil– even if the Nazi’s won World War II and successfully brainwashed everyone. The act itself would still be seen as evil if it were discovered. These are not matter of opinions, but rather, they are moral abominations. Those who deny objective moral values are simply morally handicap, in the sense they are like the blind man who cannot see the color brown. Though the blind man cannot see the color brown, nonetheless, the color brown is still there. In every case, objective moral values and duties are adhered by different civilizations, regardless of their geographic location or time period (i.e. the Greeks, Babylonians, Native American, Indian, and Hebrew, etc.). C.S. Lewis cites that within these diverse societies and civilizations, stealing and murder are condemned within their law codes while honoring parents and keeping marriage vows are applauded.Objective morality is not created but in essence, is found. Kai Nielson again, acknowledges this point:

It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [wife-beating, child abuse] to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil… I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.

Even the champion of the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins, seemingly accepts both (1) and (2) of the moral argument, all the while, being oblivious to these implications. As cited before, Dawkins informs us (in River out of Eden), that “…there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference…We are machines for propagating DNA… It is every living object’s sole reason for being.” However, Dawkins is a adherent moralist. For example, in his book God Delusion, he stated that he was “mortified” when he discovered that Enron’s executive, Jeff Skilling, loved Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene because it promoted social Darwinism. Likewise, Dawkins praises charity, compassion, and generosity as “noble emotions.” Not only that, but he describes the doctrine of original sin as “morally obnoxious.” Furthermore, he created his own revised Ten Commandments as a better standard of morality! Dawkins seems completely unaware of this contradiction. He is like the man who saws off the tree branch where he is seated on, he completely undermines his own moral relativism by making moral statements and judgements of what is objectively right or wrong.

This illustrates that even one who commits to moral relativism, is unable to honestly live out their world-view. If one where to accept (1) and (2) then the conclusion would follow deductively that God exits.

Premise (3): Therefore, God exist.

 

I think that given if the two premises of the moral argument are true, then it follows deductively and inescapably that God exists. Morality comes from something that transcends our genes. Transcendent, that is to say, religious. Something that cannot be scientifically proved, but is there nonetheless. We can – and often we do – go against what our genes dictate, for a reason that cannot be explained or justified in atheistic, materialistic terms, and which makes us moral beings.

It makes sense on a theistic-view because objective moral values are rooted in a holy, perfect, all-just, and all-loving God. Our choices are paramount and have eternal significance because we are held accountable by God. To sum it up, secular naturalist and agnostic Paul Draper admits that, “A moral world is very probable on theism.”

God in essence in the world-view of classical theism, the Summum Bonum or the highest good. God’s moral nature is expressed is reflected of His divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. The whole moral duty in Christian traditions can be beautifully summed up in Matthew 22:37-39, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Upon this principle, we can affirm that love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality are objectively good and condemn things that are objectively evil such as selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, intolerance, and oppression. 

Finally, God holds individuals morally accountable for their actions; the evil and wrong are punished and the good are vindicated. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life have eternal significance. This would lead one in a terrible dilemma. As I argued before, if the universe is not govern by God, then all our efforts to be good are meaningless. Morality is relative and it would not matter if one lived their life as Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. On the other hand, if the universe is govern by a God who is perfectly good, then it must hate everything that I do. Sure we love the golden rule, “do unto others as you would to yourself.” Everyone agrees with that rule and that it’s a good thing. But who’s really keeping it?

We fall short of that standard of goodness all the time. It is not until we come to this realization that Christianity begins to speak to us. We are need of a savior.

We are all deserving of condemnation and death, but instead, God sought that all shall be saved and that none shall perish. God went to such extreme lengths that He sent His one and only Son to live and die so that we could have a clean slate. In spite of being worthy of only condemnation, Jesus bore all the wrath meant for us and took our place on the cross. While we were sinners and Jesus was sinless, He still willingly died for us. In a beautiful exchange, Christ traded places with us. Moreover, Jesus has assured us that slate has been wiped cleaned by being risen from the dead.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Can we be Good Without God? Morality and the Existence of God

  1. Well said, bro. Here is another one to add to your stack: “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual 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.” atheist scholar, Kai Nielson

  2. You assume that we are born with an inherent moral compass based off the premise of a higher powers existence, have you ever stopped to think that maybe our morals have been learned through countless generations of trial and error. As human beings we are social and communal creatures, at some point in our evolution from ape to hominid we lost our more primal and animalistic ways to some degrre. Maybe it was because people found that not taking from their neighbor didn’t make him upset and lead to him attacking them, or that if our society functioned better and more prosperous off of more violence and killing that maybe we would make that a more normal choice in action?

    1. Kory thank you for commenting! I appreciate your input and I do apologize it took so long for me to respond back to your post.

      If our morality has been learned through countless generations of trial and error then that would entail morality has no objective meaning. Thus morality becomes wholly-subjective. The consequences of this that we have no right to condemn atrocities such as mass murder? For example, there is no way one could condemn school shootings since morality is relative. You have a dilemma of sorts.

      Hence leading into the premises I am defending:

      1). If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
      2). Objective moral values and duties do exist.
      3). Therefore, God exists.

      In a deductive argument, it follows logically and necessarily if the premises are true, whether you like it or not. If you admit (1), you must deny (2). But that would entail, that morality is relative and all things are permissible which abhorrent and universally contradicts our moral experience. Some things are genuinely evil or good. For example, raping and murdering a small child is morally abominable. Additionally, cowardice universally has been seen by all cultures as a bad thing and never celebrated. In contrast, things like charity, brotherhood, equality, and tolerance are considered good things. If you accept (2) and deny (1), then you must show how outside of naturalism and evolution, what is the ontological foundation for objective moral values and duties. If it is in us, then morality would be different from people to people. If you accept (1) or (2), then ultimately, you are confronted with a brute fact that God exists. It is utterly inescapable at this point.

      This is more moral epistemology and not moral ontology, however, this is a soft ball question. You wrote about how “if our society functioned better and more prosperous off of more violence and killing that maybe we would make that a more normal choice in action?” Right… but what moral obligation do I have to not to be violent or kill people? What is keeping me from doing things like hoarding all the gusto for myself or stealing food from my neighbors and I have to kill them for it? After all, what if I am starving? Is it not to my benefit to do that? Or what would you say to the fellow soldier in the battlefield that falls on an enemy grenade and shields his other comrades from the blast by forfeiting his own life? Is it not better for him for survivability purposes to not fall on the grenade? What about a mother laying down her life for her children? Is that not against her own animalistic instincts to survive? And yet, humans celebrate and exalt these heroic deeds across culture, times, and history.

      And if you think we are morally improving as a society, as secular humanism would say, that is just utter nonsense. Look at what happened during the Holocaust. Germany was the pinnacle of Western society culturally. Germany birthed the liberalism movement in the 1800s and led the way in a lot of different fields of scholarship. Of course as history has shown, Hitler came into power by popular vote and was granted extraordinary powers by the German people over and over. Of course, the ultimate outcome was the creation of the concentration and death camps in the Third Reich. There has been more wars and deaths in the last two centuries than there have been in last two millenniums!

      The argument that we are socially conditioned through evolution is fallacious. It commits the genetic fallacy which says, if I show how a belief originates, then therefore, that belief is false. If I were to give you a fortune cookie with a fortune that said “the world is round,” would it therefore, be false? Obviously not! Similarly, God could have simply used evolutionary processes as a way to guide and embedded the moral law (or as C.S. Lewis coined it, the natural law). Thus, this question is not really solving or challenging anything.

      Kory, the only way to make sense of our moral experience is that it is rooted in a wholly, perfect, just, and good God. As the moral law has shown me, I have so many times have gone against my own moral conscious and have done wrong in my life. If the universe is governed by moral goodness, as I have adequately argued, then it must hate everything I do. For I have fallen short and I am not perfect. I am need of a savior to get me out of this dilemma.

      Here is where Jesus comes in. He came from his glorious and exalted place in heaven and came in weakness and humility and took upon the sin of the world upon the cross. He plunged himself into vulnerability and darkness out of love for us. And here we see the greatest possible glory- the willingness to lay aside all his glory out of love for us.

      Jesus loves you. Come on home.

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