Can we be good without God?
This is a question that has been debated by others. The very question alone can cause an emotional reaction. That’s because people tend to misunderstand the question as “Can we be good without believing in God?” And if that’s the question then, of course, the answer is yes. I know some atheists and agnostics that seem to have higher morals than some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
But the question isn’t “Can we be good without believing in God?” The question is “Can we be good without God?” To properly understand this question, we need to understand whether morality is objective or subjective. Dr. William Lane Craig, in his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, explains:
To say that something is objective is to say that it is independent of what people think or perceive. By contrast, to say that something is subjective is just to say that it is not objective; that is to say, it is dependent on what human persons think or perceive…
To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so. Similarly to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong for us independently of whether any human being believes them to be so. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis has won World War II and succeeding in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them so that it was universally believed that the Holocaust was right.
As a matter of fact, subjective morality (also known as moral relativism) was the defense appeal of the Nazis during the Nazi war crime trials after World War II. J. Warner Wallace talks about this in his blog Are Objective Moral Truths Merely a Matter of Cultural Agreement? :
In fact, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made this clear in his early career as a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials following World War II. When the German soldiers who committed atrocities in the Jewish prison camps were brought to trial to face criminal charges, the issue of moral relativity was tested directly. The lawyers for the German officers argued that these men should not be judged for actions that were actually morally acceptable in the nation of Germany at the time of the war. They argued their supervisors and culture encouraged this behavior; in fact, to do otherwise would defy the culture and ideology in which they lived. In their moral environment, this behavior was part of the “shared morality”. Jackson argued against such a view of moral relativism and said, “There is a law above the law.” The officers were convicted and executed.
It was only by appealing to absolute or objective morality that the Nazis were convicted of their crimes. To put it in other terms, it was only by appealing to absolute or objective morality that it could have even been considered that the Nazis had done anything wrong or evil at all.
So is morality objective or subjective? Is it absolute or relative? Moral relativists like to say things like “It’s true for you but not for me,” “You shouldn’t force your morality on people,” and “You should live and let live,” but each of these statements
Moral relativists like to say things like “It’s true for you but not for me,” “You shouldn’t force your morality on people,” and “You should live and let live,” but each of these statements are self-contradictory.
Let’s look at each of those statements.
“It’s true for you but not for me.”
If morality is subjective and relative, then the Nazis did nothing wrong. If morality is subjective and relative, then there is no difference between Sister Teresa and Adolf Hitler.
- You can’t make moral judgments about other people’s moral choices
- You can’t complain about God allowing evil and suffering
- You can’t blame people or praise people for their moral choices
- You can’t claim that any situation is unfair or unjust
- You can’t improve your morality
- You can’t have meaningful discussions about morality
- You can’t promote the obligation to be tolerant
Consider that Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who raped, murdered, and dismembered 17 men and boys from 1978 to 1991, said this:
If a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing.
We could simply say that Jeffrey Dahmer was insane, that there was something wrong with him. But then we would be making moral judgments about his moral choices (which violates the 1st thing that Greg Koukl says you can’t do if you are a moral relativist.)
Every time that you think that something is wrong, every time that you think something is not fair, or every time that you think that something is an injustice, you affirm your belief in objective morals. If you think it’s wrong for someone to steal from you, then you affirm your belief in objective morals.
A question that puts it bluntly is, “Is it ever OK to torture babies for fun?” J. Warner Wallace discusses this question in his blog, The Self-Evident Nature of Objective Moral Truths. Essentially the answers break down like this:
- If it isn’t, then you have identified an absolute moral truth that you can agree.
- If they reject that there is necessarily an absolute moral truth about it, then press them and ask them for the scenario that it is morally acceptable to torture babies for fun.
Ravi Zacharias, in the forward to Frank Turek’s Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, writes:
To put it simply, when you assert that there is such a thing as evil, you must assume there is such a thing as good. When you say there is such a thing as good, you must assume there is a moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil.
This brings us to the moral argument for the existence of God:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
As Frank Turek says in Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case:
Everyone knows basic right and wrong whether they believe in God or have the Bible or not. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible teaches (see Romans 2:14-15)
Romans 2:14-15 [HCSB] says this:
So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law[a] is written on their hearts.Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts will either accuse or excuse them
Even atheist Michael Ruse says:
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.
Francis Schaeffer says this:
If there is no moral absolute, we are left with hedonism (doing what I like) or some form of the social contract theory (what is best for society as a whole is right). However, neither of these alternatives corresponds to the moral motions that men have. Talk to people long enough and deeply enough, and you will find that they consider some things are really right and some things are really wrong.
But what is the foundation of those objective moral values and duties? Without God, there is no foundation for good or bad, right or wrong.
Some will say that it’s society or culture, but then how were the Nazis able to have been considered evil? It was perfectly acceptable in their culture for what they did. From J. Warner Wallace’s blog Are Objective Moral Truths Merely a Matter of Cultural Agreement?:
If societies are the source of objective moral truths, what are we to do when two cultures disagree about these truths? How do we adjudicate between two competing views of a particular moral claim? To whom do we appeal? If objective moral truths are simply a matter of “shared morality”, the societal majority rules; “might makes right”. In a world like this, anyone (or any group) holding the minority position in a particular moral argument is, by definition, immoral. As my ministry partner, Greg Koukl, rightly observes in Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, there can be no moral activism if objective moral truths are simply a matter of majority opinion. When a society defines an objective moral truth and the vast majority of its members agree, on what basis can a lone reformer make a call for change? Anyone who advocates for a position that disagrees with the majority is, by definition, morally mistaken. A moral reformer, like Martin Luther King Jr., simply could not have argued for moral truth from a minority moral position if objective truths are defined by the majority. King Jr. would, by definition, have been considered immoral; his views were contrary to those held (and therefore defined) by the majority. The civil rights movement was successful because it appealed to an authority greater than the majority. The movement recognized transcendent moral truths are discovered (rather than created).
I once had an atheist friend tell me that it was the world culture that set the morality in which what the Nazis did was considered evil, but that assumes that the world is a single culture. Consider how the US and the USSR spent decades in a cold war following WWII. Just by looking at those 2 countries, we can show that there wasn’t a world moral culture. Furthermore, five times as many people were put to death during Stalin’s reign than Hitler’s concentration camps. So what leg did Russia stand on to judge Germany?
Others will appeal to science as being the foundation for morality, but science is morally neutral. You can’t find moral values in a test tube.
David Berlinski, who is himself an agnostic, writes in his book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions:
If moral imperatives are not commanded by God’s will, and if they are not in some sense absolute, then what ought to be is a matter of what men and women decide should be. There is no other source of judgement.
What is this if not another way of saying that if God does not exist, everything is permitted?
These conclusions suggest quite justifiably that in failing to discover the source of value in the world at large, we must in the end retreat to a form of moral relativism, the philosophy of the fraternity house or the faculty dining room – similar environments, after all – whence the familiar declaration that just as there are no absolute truths, there are no moral absolutes.
Of these positions, no one believes the first, and no one is prepared to live with the second.
Dr. William Lane Craig writes this in the workbook to his On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision about the moral argument:
The easiest way to explain the moral argument is to explain what it’s not. It is not the assertion that one has to be religious or Christian to be morally good. Rather, it’s the assertion that moral truth requires an adequate explanatory ground. There must be a standard that it not found in any human being, organization, or society, but in a transcendent being, who is God. Defining morality as a social construct doesn’t offer us an objective foundation for morality. The point of this argument is to show that a morally perfect being must exist to ground objective moral values and duties. The aim is not to convince the skeptic that unless he believes in such a being, he is a bad person.
So it seems pretty clear that objective moral values exist. Therefore, God exists.