I’ve already written once on the moral question Can We Be Good Without God? Recently, while going through some notebooks, I found some notes that I put together that was based entirely on a handout that was given out at the On Guard conference that was held in Tulsa, Ok (where I’m from) in 2012. This conference was hosted by William Lane Craig and based on his book On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. He had quite a number of heavy hitters at this conference: Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Guillermo Gonzalez, and Paul Copan. Dr. Craig spoke several times, and the other speakers hosted the breakout sessions. It was my first conference and was around the time that I was finally getting serious about apologetics (which itself was due to occurrences and conversations that I have referenced in this blog post.)
At the conference, each session was videoed and posted to youtube here. Paul Copan talked in the breakout session Can We Be Good Without God? The video for his session is below. I really recommend watching it. (I actually recommend watching all 9 sessions of the conference if you have the time.)
His notes were very thorough in the handout. I had retyped them up and included some of my own comments in preparation for the first bible study that I held, which was based Dr. Craig’s On Guard. I am presenting those notes as I had typed them up.
CAN WE BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD? THE MORAL ARGUMENT
Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
J. Rist: There’s “widely admitted to be a crisis in contemporary Western debates about ethical foundations.” (Real Ethics, 2003)
The moral argument shows God to be the foundation for ethics.
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Preliminaries: Definitions and Distinctions
#1.VALUES (GOOD) AND DUTIES (RIGHT)
#2. OBJECTIVE (“INDEPENDENT OF BELIEF”) / SUBJECTIVE (“DEPENDENT ON BELIEF”)
1. IF GOD DOES NOT EXIST, OBJECTIVE MORAL VALUES AND DUTIES DO NOT EXIST
1.1 THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWING AND BEING. Theists can readily admit that nonbelievers can know moral truths. Knowing is epistemology. Being is ontology. Moral ontology deals with the reality of moral values and properties. Moral epistemology deals with our knowledge of moral truths. As far as moral epistemology is concerned, the bible actually teaches that God’s moral law is “written on our the hearts” of all men, so that even those who do not know God’s law “do naturally the things of the law” as “their conscience bears witness to them.” (Rom 2:15)
So epistemologically, the atheist is right; because all humans have been made in God’s image, and thus are intrinsically valuable (endowed with dignity, conscience, rights, duties, and the basic capacity to recognize right and wrong.) It is no surprise that nontheists of all stripes know the same sorts of moral truths as believers.
Ontologically, however, a nontheist metaphysic (that is, the actual ground or basis that makes moral knowledge possible) is inadequate. Why think impersonal/physical, valueless processes will produce valuable, rights-bearing persons? Theism is necessary, that there might be moral good and duties, not that we might discern the moral goods and duties that there are.
1.2 THE INCOMPLETENESS OF SECULAR THINGS. They cannot offer any basis for human dignity or duties without God.
1.3 FROM VALUELESSNESS VALUELESSNESS COMES. Intrinsically-valuable, thinking persons don’t come from impersonal, non-conscious, unguided, valueless processes over time. A personal, self-aware, purposeful, good God provides the needed context.
1.4 THE IS-OUGHT PROBLEM. Articulated by David Hume in the 18th century. People make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. There seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive statements (about what ought to be.)
Descriptive – serving or seeking to describe. Describing or classifying without expressive feelings or judging.
Prescriptive – of or relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method; (of a right, title, or institution) having become legally established or accepted by long usage or the passage of time.
It is not obvious how one can coherently move from descriptive statements to prescriptive ones. Given naturalism, how do we move from is to ought? C.S. Lewis said that moral impulses would be no more true or false than a vomit or a yawn. (Miracles, 1960) There’s no difference between whether I ought to be moral and whether I ought to be hungry since both are functions of evolutionary hardwiring. These states just are.
1.5 THE CONNECTION BETWEEN PERSONHOOD AND VALUE. Without God (a personal being), no persons – and thus no moral values – would exist at all; no persons, and no values.
1.6 GOD IS THE GUARANTOR OF FINAL JUSTICE AND HAPPINESS. God guarantees that the moral life and happiness coincide. Naturalism can’t guarantee this.
1.7 ATHEIST MAKING THE GOD-MORALITY CONNECTION. Leading atheists recognize the God-objective morality connection. A godless world means no human dignity.
Many philosophers have argued that if God does not exist, then morality is ultimately subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God such actions would no longer count as good or evil, right or wrong, since in the absence of God, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Richard Tayler, an eminent atheist, writes: “The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in case God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well. Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war, abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are “morally wrong”, and they imagine that they have said something true and significant. Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion.”
He concludes, “Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose [i.e. no God], no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
Dawkins concedes, “It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.”
Atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie accepts that, if objective moral truths exist, they would warrant a supernatural explanation.
If atheism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said, “If there is no immortality…then all things are permitted.”
The state torturers in Soviet prisons understood this all too well. Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was tortured for his faith, reports:”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 inflicted on prisoners.”
Jeffrey Dahmer: “If it all happens naturalistically, what’s the need for a God? Can’t I set my own rules? Who owns me? I own myself.” And “If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then – 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, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing….” [Editorial: I know for a fact that this quote is my addition.
[Editorial: I know that the Jeffrey Dahmer quote is my addition. I’ve been using this quote since before I fully heard the moral argument, and still think that it is a relevant addition.]
1.8 THE HISTORICAL CONNECTION BETWEEN GOD AND HUMAN RIGHTS.
#1: The Declaration of Independence (1776): “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
#2: France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789): “in the presence and under the auspices of ‘the Supreme Being'”
#3: UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948): drafted primarily by Jews and Christians. M Stackhouse: “intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular’, ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religion.” (A Christian Perspective in Human Rights, Society 2004)
The same is true of the bioethics movement (early 19060s): D. Callahan: “When I first became interested in bioethics in the mid-1960s, the only resources were theological or those drawn from within the traditions of medicine, themselves heavily shaped by religion.” (Religion and the Secularization of Bioethics, Hastings Center Report 1990)
EXCURSUS: THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA
“Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it [God’s commands are arbitrary], or do they approve it because it is holy [there’s a moral standard external to God]?” God’s good character/nature is the basis for objective morality. Humans are moral creatures made in God’s image, which enables us to recognize right and wrong.
#1. THE PROBLEM OF VALUABLE HUMANS: The dilemma doesn’t address how morally valuable beings could exist.
#2. GOD WITHOUT DUTIES: Goodness can’t be reduced to what God commands, which is what the Euthyphro assumes. Moral values is much broader than what God commands.
#3. THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF GOD COMMANDING EVIL: God couldn’t be evil or command evil; if so, he wouldn’t be worthy of worship.
#4. GOD’S TEMPORARY COMMANDS: God commands some things that are unique or temporary (i.e. circumcision, food laws). “Goodness” is not the same thing as “whatever God commands.”
#5 PRESUMED DESIGN PLAN FOR HUMANS: Believing in objective morality assumes a design plan for human well-being – which makes sense given theism.
#6 THE NECESSITY OF GOD AND MORAL VALUES: Moral values exist necessarily because a good (supremely valuable) being, God, exists. So God’s existence would entail or necessitate that moral values exist in every possible world.
2. OBJECTIVE MORAL VALUES (AND DUTIES) EXIST.
2.1 THE INESCAPABILITY OF ETHICS: Objective moral values do exist and inescapable and properly basic. (See Amos 1-2).
2.1.1 THE YUCK/ICK FACTOR: Don’t believe people who say rape may not really be wrong.
2.1.2 THE RIGHTS AND RELATIVISM: Rights and relativism contradict each other.
2.1.2 THE PRINCIPLE OF CREDULITY: We should treat general moral intuitions regarding, say, torturing for fun or raping as innocent until proven guilty (the credulity principle.)
2.1.4 THE MORALITY DISCOVERED, NOT INVENTED: This makes sense of moral reform and our basic moral intuitions about human dignity. Did blacks have value before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964?
2.1.5 STARTING WITH THE CLEAR: Start with morally clear cases and work to the unclear. “What about morally gray areas?” Dr. Samuel Johnson: “The fact that there is such a thing a twilight does not mean that we cannot distinguish between day and night.” “Well, then, whose morality?” Any questions about rape, child abuse, torturing babies for fun?
2.2 POSSIBLE OBJECTION: BIOLOGY EXPLAINS “ETHICS”: Michael Ruse: we merely think morality is objective, but that isn’t so. Morality is a corporate illusion that has been “fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” We FEEL obligation without BEING obligated. Naturalistic evolution DOESN’T REQUIRE that we act “dutifully” if we can get away with not doing so.
2.2.1 QUESTION BEGGING: This objection assumes God doesn’t exist, but why couldn’t both be true – that God used the evolutionary process to help shape our moral beliefs.
2.2.2 THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF KNOWLEDGE: Our beliefs – including our moral ones – may help us survive, but there’s no reason to think they’re true (belief in objective morality or human dignity may help us survive, but it may be completely false. Charles Darwin: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” Naturalistic evolution is interested in fitness/survival – not in true belief; so not only is objective morality undermined, so is rational thought.
2.2.3 A SELF-DEFEATING OBJECTION: Can we trust our minds if we are nothing more than products of naturalistic evolution trying to fight, feed, flee, and reproduce? The problem with skepticism is that I’m assuming a trustworthy reasoning process to arrive at a conclusion that I can’t trust my reasoning! Being made in the image of a truthful, rational Being helps make sense of why we generally trust our senses and moral intuitions.
2.2.4 MATTER WITHOUT BELIEFS: How could matter have beliefs? A thermometer may register 78 degrees. This doesn’t mean that it believes that 78 degrees is the temperature – let alone knows it.
CONCLUSION: GOD EXISTS