God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties
A question: Can we be good without belief in God? Well yes, that’s perfectly possible. But can we be good without God’s existence? This is a question about the nature of moral values. Are the values we hold to, which guide our lives formed from just social conventions, like driving on the right-hand versus left-hand side of the road? Or are they merely expressions of personal preference, like your choice of ice cream? Or perhaps they are valid and binding to use regardless of our personal opinion? If it were objective in this way, what is the foundations for it?
A great number of philosophers have seen that morality provides a good argument for God’s existence. William Sorley, a professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge university wrote in his Moral Values and the Idea of God (1918) that the best hope for a rational, unified view of reality is to postulate God as the ground of both the natural and the moral orders.
This view holds to an objective moral order that’s real and independent of us like the natural order of things. The moral order and the natural order are thus on a similar footing. Just as we assume the reality of the world of objects on the basis of our sense experience, so we assume the reality of the moral order on the basis of our moral experience.
What worldview can best encompass the natural and the moral order? Sorley argued that God is the best explanation of these facts. There must be an infinite, eternal Mind who is the architect of nature and whose moral purpose man and the universe are gradually fulfilling.
The thing you’ll find is when it comes to moral values is when you ask people “are there things that are really wrong, always?” They will often say yes and give examples. Many will hold to the reality of some objective moral values and duties or otherwise face the risk of essentially permitting anything.
A moral argument might look like this.
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
It’s simple, logically airtight, we just need to prove premise 1+2 to equal 3. You will often argue for the first premise and people, generally through example, will grant the second.
What makes this argument so effective is people generally believe both premises. In a pluralistic age, students are fearful of imposing their values on someone else. So premise 1 seems correct to them because of its implicit relativism. At the same time, certain values have been deeply instilled into them, such as tolerance, open-mindedness, and love. They think it’s objectively wrong to impose your values on someone else! So they’re deeply committed to premise 2 as well.
Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Two Important Distinctions
There are two things we’re stating in this: values and duties and objective values. Let’s define them so you know what I’m talking about
Values and Duties
First, notice that I distinguish values and duties. Values have to do with whether something is good or bad. Duties have to do with whether something is right or wrong. They may feel like they’re the same thing, but you’d be wrong.
Duty has to do with moral obligation, what you ought or ought not to do. But obviously you’re not morally obligated to do something just because it would be good for you to do it. It would be good for you to become a Doctor, Fireman, lifeguard, farmer, a diplomat but you’re not morally obligated to become any of these, you can’t do them all either. And what if you only have bad options? E.G. the film Sophie’s Choice or The Trolly problem scenario where you kill one child or a number of elderly folk— it’s not wrong to make a choice as you have no other choice. Good/bad has to do with something’s worth, while right/wrong has to do with something’s being obligatory.
Objective and Subjective
Second, there’s the distinction between being objective or subjective.
- Objective: independent of people’s opinions
- Subjective: dependent on people’s opinions.
So this is to say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or bad no matter what people think about it. Similarly, to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong for us regardless of what people think.
For example, we can say that the Holocaust was objectively wring even though the Nazi’s who carried it out thought it was right, and it would still have been wrong of the Nazi’s won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them, so that everyone believed the Holocaust was right. The Holocaust would still be wrong.
Premise 1 asserts that if there is no God, then moral values and duties are not objective in that sense.
Defense of Premise 1: Objective Moral Values Require God
So consider, first, moral values. Traditionally moral values have been based in God, who is the highest Good. But if God does not exist, what is the basis of moral values?
Without God, where do we get this sense that human beings have moral worth? Naturalism is the prevailing view undergirding most atheists and this view holds that the only things that exist are the things described by our best scientific theories. But science is morally neutral; you can’t find moral values in a test tube. So moral values don’t exist under this worldview they’re just illusions of human beings.
On a naturalistic view moral values are just the by-product of biological evolution and social conditioning. To quote William Lane Craig’s illustration “Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins Homo sapiens exhibit similar behavior for the same reason”.
Also for the atheist, there doesn’t seem to be anything that would give them objectively true facts with regards to morals. If we were to rewind the film of human evolution back to the beginning and start anew, people with a very different set of moral values might well have evolved. Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man,
“If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the workerbees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering”.Charles Darwin, Descent of Man
So for human beings under this view to see morality as objectively true would be to fall into the category of speciesism, an unjustified bias toward one’s own species.
If God does not exist any basis for regarding the herd morality evolved by Homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. Take God out of the picture, and all you’re left with is an apelike creature on a speck of solar dust beset with delusions of moral grandeur.
Objective Moral Duties Require God
Looking at the flip side of the coin, moral duties, we traditionally see these as finding their origin in God’s Commandments, one such example that we all know is the Ten Commandments.
But, without God, what is the foundations for such duties? On the atheistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse, it didn’t murder it, it simply killed it. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her—for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.
So without God, why have a moral obligation to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties upon us? Where do they come from? There doesn’t seem to be anything more than societal and parental conditioning. Certain actions such as incest and rape may not be biologically and socially advantageous and so in the course of human development have become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to show that rape or incest is really wrong. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. The rapist who goes against the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably, like the man who belches loudly at the dinner table. If there is no moral lawgiver, then there is no objective moral law that we must obey.
Getting Clear about the Argument
Now, presenting this argument requires caution, if they misunderstand you, you’ll be accused of calling all atheists bad people! We need to make sure the argument makes sense to them.
Think back and feel free to use the example stated at the beginning. You can live morally without believing in God, but if God doesn’t exist, then there’s just no standard for that, to anyone! And if you claim a standard you’re standard remains subjective if God does not exist. Living a moral, charitable life does nothing to refute the claim that if there is no God, then morality is just a human illusion.
The question is not about the necessity of belief in God for objective morality but about the necessity of the existence of God for objective morality.
To repeat: Belief in God is not necessary for objective morality; God is necessary.
A. The Euthyphro Dilemma
The other response you can count on getting from unbelievers is the so-called Euthyphro dilemma, named after a character in one of Plato’s dialogues. It basically goes like this: Is something good because God wills it? Or does God will something because it is good? If you say that something is good because God wills it, then what is good becomes arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred is good, and then we would have been morally obligated to hate one another. That seems crazy. Some moral values, at least, seem to be necessary. But if you say that God wills something because it is good, then what is good or bad is independent of God. In that case, moral values and duties exist independently of God, which contradicts premise 1.
Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma
We don’t need to refute either of the two horns of the Euthyphro dilemma, because the dilemma it presents is a false one: There’s a third alternative, namely, God wills something because He is good. What do I mean by that? I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments to us are expressions of His nature. In short, our moral duties are determined by the commands of a just and loving God.
So moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so on. His nature is the moral standard defining good and bad. His commands necessarily reflect His moral nature. Therefore, they’re not arbitrary. When the atheist demands, “If God were to command child abuse, would we be obligated to abuse our children?” he’s asking a question like “If there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides?” There is no answer because what it supposes is logically impossible.
So the Euthyphro dilemma presents us with a false choice, and we shouldn’t be tricked by it. The morally good/bad is determined by God’s nature, and the morally right/wrong is determined by His will. God wills something because He is good, and something is right because God wills it.
B. Atheistic Moral Platonism: Moral Values Simply Exist
Plato thought that the Good just exists on its own as a sort of self-existent Idea. Basically, moral values like justice, mercy, love, and so on, just exist without any foundation. This view is known atheistic moral platonism. The belief that objective moral values exist but not grounded in God.
Answer to Atheistic Moral Platonism
Firstly, this is just a bizarre concept, to say the moral value “justice” exists. This is to say, in the absence of people, justice just exists. Moral values by all appearances seem to be properties of persons, not just abstract properties apart from them.
Secondly, what about moral duties? There seems to be no basis on this view. Even if “justice” existed abstractly, that does nothing towards moral obligations, why should I be kind? Why should I think what Mao did was wrong? There is no obligation to anything on this worldview. Greed, evil, hatred are also abstract just like charity, good and justice. Atheistic moral platonism, lacking a moral lawgiver, has no grounds for moral obligation.
Thirdly, it’s incredibly improbable that the blind evolutionary process should produce creatures who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. When you think about this chance coincidence, it appears that the universe, this moral realm, knew what was coming!
Sorley states that it’s far more plausible to think that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the authority of a God who gave us both the laws of nature and the moral law than to think that these two independent realms just happened to combine.
C. Stubborn Humanism: Whatever Contributes to Human Flourishing Is Good
The third objection is rather bland. A humanist will affirm these moral values and duties and just stop at that point, no need to extrapolate backwards to a source. Whatever contributes to human flourishing is good, and whatever detracts from it is bad, and that’s the end of the story.
Answer to Stubborn Humanism
Just taking human flourishing as your ultimate stopping point seems, however, to be premature, because of the arbitrariness and implausibility of such a stopping point.
Starting with its arbitrariness, on an atheistic worldview, why think that what is conducive to human flourishing is any more valuable than what is conducive to the flourishing of ants, mice or lettuce? Why think that inflicting harm on another member of our species is wrong? Picking out human flourishing as morally special seems to be arbitrary on this worldview with no justification.
Then there’s the implausibility of the atheistic worldview. Sometimes atheists posit that moral properties like goodness and badness necessarily attach to certain natural states of affairs.
- The property of badness necessarily attaches to a man’s beating his wife.
- The property of goodness necessarily attaches to a mother’s nursing her infant.
- Once all the purely natural properties are in place, then the moral properties necessarily come along with them.
Now given atheism this seems incredibly implausible. Why think that these strange, non-natural moral properties like “goodness” and “badness” even exist, much less somehow get necessarily attached to various natural states of affairs? I can’t see any reason to think that, given an atheistic view of the world, a full description of the natural properties involved in some situation would determine or fix any moral properties of that situation.
This atheistic form of humanism is cherry picking without grounding. They take what they need to make their worldview plausible and stop there.
What’s needed to make their view plausible is some sort of explanation for why moral properties attach to certain natural states of affairs. Again, it’s inadequate for the humanist to assert that we do, in fact, see that human beings have intrinsic moral value, for that’s not in dispute (that’s the second premise of the moral argument). What we want from the humanist is some reason to think that human beings would be morally significant if atheism were true. Alas, it appears nothing but a faith without basis.
In contrast to such a view, God is a natural stopping point with justification. Unless we are moral nihilists, we have to recognise some stopping point, and God as the ultimate reality is the natural place to stop. God by definition is the one worthy of worship, the greatest conceivable being and the one who can ground all moral values and a substantive free-will ethic. He is also a being that is the ground and source of goodness is greater than one that merely shares in goodness. So theism isn’t characterized by the sort of arbitrariness and implausibility that afflicts stubborn humanism.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties exist.
It could be thought of this premise being the one where the battle would take place, but due to the outcomes of denying it’s falsehood, many affirm objective moral values and duties do indeed exist (and we’ve seen the alternative worldviews under premise one that have been presupposed). Professors are more likely to believe in objective values than students, but philosophy professors even more than other professors hold to the objective reality of moral values
On Guard, William Lane Craig
Philosophers who reflect on our moral experience see no more reason to distrust that experience than the experience of our five senses. I believe what my five senses tell me, namely, that there is a world of physical objects out there. My senses are not infallible, but that doesn’t lead me to think that there is no external world around me. Similarly, in the absence of some reason to distrust my moral experience, I should accept what it tells me, namely, that some things are objectively good or evil, right or wrong. Living a life where you assume every decision you make is illusory could lead to some morally wrong judgements.
Most agree in our moral experience we do know objective values and duties. We recognise that rape, sexual assault, vivisection, torturing children is wrong, they arn’t just socially unacceptable behaviour.love, generopusity and self-sacrifice are good. If these values arn’t recognised then we see people holding to such extremes as mentally handicapped.
No one really lives out this reality, people want to adhere to relativism, but when it comes to the extreme cases, there’s nothing relative about it—some things are just wrong. Objective moral values and duties do just exist, it takes but a few illustrations to express this.
- Hindu practice of suttee (burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands)
- The ancient Chinese custom of crippling women for life by tightly binding their feet from childhood to resemble lotus blossoms.
- The Nazi Holocaust of Jews, Homosexuals, religiously faithful
Also, sure you may be a Christian but what about the crusades? Or the inquisition? Are they morally wrong? Or how about Catholic priests sexually abusing little boys and their churches covering it up? A genuine inquirer I believe will see these for what they are and see the wrongness within (Obviously with the crusades there’s more to it, but there were some terrible acts amongst the good that was done and people generally remember the worst of the crusades). Some will still hold onto such a position and see these as relative, but these hard liners tend to make others feel uncomfortable when they can compare the rape of children and the love of a mother to her child as relative to each other.
To quote a conversation from William Lane Craig’s On Guard to drive home the point of a conversation between a pastor and a liberal relativist:
“Wait a minute. I’m rather confused. I’m a pastor and people are always coming to me, asking if something they’ve done is wrong and if they need forgiveness. For example, isn’t it always wrong to abuse a child?” I couldn’t believe the panelist’s response. She replied: “What counts as abuse differs from society to society, so we can’t really use the word abuse without tying it to a historical context.”
“Call it whatever you like,” the pastor insisted, “but child abuse is damaging to children. Isn’t it wrong to damage children?” And still she wouldn’t admit it!”On Guard, William Lane Craig
When you meet a scenario like this it exposes the bankruptcy of such a view. Sure you can believe it, but most recognise the madness of holding to it.
Sociobiological Objections to Moral Experience
Do we have any overriding reason to distrust our moral experience? Some people have claimed that the sociobiological account of the origins of morality undermines our moral experience. According to this account, our moral beliefs have been ingrained into us by evolution and social conditioning. So should we distrust our moral experience as a result?
Answer to Sociobiological Objections
This sociobiological account does absolutely nothing to undermine the truth of our moral beliefs. For the truth of a belief is independent of how you came to hold that belief. You may acquire moral beliefs in all sorts of ways (watching tv, a captivating novel) but they could turn out to be true. And so In particular, if God exists, then objective moral values and duties exist, regardless of how we come to learn about them.
The sociobiological account at best proves that our perception of moral values and duties has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then our gradual and fallible perception of those values no more undermines their objective reality than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines its objective reality.
But perhaps the sociobiological account undermines, not the truth of our moral beliefs, but our justification for holding such beliefs. If your moral beliefs were based on a tv series you watched as a child, they might accidentally turn out to be true, but you wouldn’t have any justification for thinking that they are true. So you wouldn’t know that they are true.
Also, unguided evolution aims at survival, not at truth, so how could we trust our moral beliefs? Won’t our moral beliefs be chosen for our survival benefits over telling the truth that works against us often? So for that view, we can’t trust our moral experience and therefore don’t know if premise 2 is true.
This argument also presupposes the truth of atheism. If there’s no God then our moral values are selected by evolution solely for their survival value, not for their truth. But if God exists, then it’s likely that He would want us to have fundamentally correct moral beliefs and so would either guide the evolutionary process to produce such beliefs or else instill them in us (Rom. 2:15). We don’t really need to assume atheism here, again, no leap to it needs to be made.
Also, If naturalism is true, all our beliefs, not just our moral beliefs, are the result of evolution and social conditioning. You’re left with scepticism of knowledge of everything! How can you know anything to be true? Should we not then be sceptical of the evolutionary account as well since it, too, is the product of evolution and social conditioning? The objection therefore undermines itself. This view doesn’t hold weight and is self-refuting in the end.
Since the first two premises are true, it follows logically that the third premise is true, God exists. This argument like the other Cosmological arguments is complementary to them as they all seek the grounding explanation. This argument informs us of the moral nature of God. It gives us a personal, necessarily existent being, who is not only perfectly good, but whose nature is the standard of goodness and whose commands constitute our moral duties. This argument is being raised every time you make a moral decision. We cannot be truly good without God, because without God there is simply no justification for it objectively.
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition (New York: D.
- Appleton & Company, 1909), 100.
- William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz, “The Kurtz/Craig Debate,” in Goodness without God is Good
- Enough, ed. Robert Garcia and Nathan King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 34.
- William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God?: A Debate between a Christian and an
- Atheist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34.
- William Lane Craig, On Guard