No Good without God Atheists may be moral, but ultimately their alternative is nihilism
Can we be good without God? At first the answer to this question may seem so obvious that even to ask it arouses indignation. For while those of us who believe in God find Him a source of moral strength which helps us to live better lives than we would without Him, nevertheless it’s arrogant and ignorant to claim that agnostics and atheists do not often live good moral lives — indeed, embarrassingly, lives that sometimes put our own to shame.
But wait. It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question. The question was: can we be good without God? When we ask that question, we are posing in a provocative way the philosophical question of the objectivity of moral values.
Are the values we treasure mere social conventions like driving on the left versus the right side of the road? Or are they simply expressions of our personal likes, such as having a taste for certain foods or not? Do moral laws exist whether we recognise them or not, and if so, what is their foundation? Moreover, if morality is nothing more than a purely human idea, then why should we act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest? Or, are we in some way held accountable for our moral decisions and actions?
I want to argue that if God exists, then it follows that objective moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability exist as well. However, if God doesn’t exist, then morality is just a human way of doing things, that is to say, it is subjective and non-binding. Of course, we might still behave in exactly the same way, but in the absence of God, these actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. So, it’s impossible to be truly good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, this give us moral grounds for believing in God.
Let’s assume that God exists. This leads to a number of logical conclusions. First, if we assume that God exists, then clearly objective moral values (that is, values outside of us) must exist. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether we believe that it is right or wrong. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.
If you believe in God as the self-existent Creator, then clearly He must be the source of objective moral values. Where else could they come from? God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured.
God’s moral nature is what Plato called the “Good”. He is the source of all moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth.
But let’s go a step further. If God is moral by nature and, therefore, the source of morality, we should not be surprised that His moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which become our moral duties or obligations.
Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, our whole moral duty can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with every part of your being, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.
Finally, if we assume that God exists, and that moral standards are objective, then it follows that God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced.
Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and meaningless gestures. Rather, our moral lives have a paramount significance. So I think it’s evident that believing in God provides a sound foundation for morality.
Contrast this with the atheistic hypothesis. First, if atheism is true, objective moral values do not exist. If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for moral values? More particularly, what is the basis for the value of human beings? 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? Who or what imposes any moral duties upon us?
Moreover, on the atheistic view there is no divine lawgiver. But then what source is there for moral obligation? Richard Taylor, an eminent ethicist, writes,
The moderns 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 casting 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 are war, or 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.
Now it is important that we remain clear in understanding the issue before us. The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterise as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the person who believes in God would also largely agree. Or again, the question is not: Can we recognise the existence of objective moral values without reference to God? Those who believe in God will typically maintain that a person need not believe in God in order to recognise, say, that we should love our children.
However, if there is no God, then we have no real ground for thinking that the herd morality that has evolved among the human race is objectively true.
After all, what is so special about human beings? Aren’t we, on atheistic assumptions, just accidental by-products of nature? Haven’t we simply evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe? Aren’t we doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time?
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous. It harms our survival. So, according to the evolutionary model, it has become taboo; however, on the basis of this atheistic view there is really nothing really wrong with committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion”, then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality, say, by committing incest, is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably.
Thus, if naturalism is true, it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, or love as good. It does not matter what values you choose — for there is no such thing as right and wrong; good and evil do not exist. That means that an atrocity like the Holocaust was really morally indifferent. You may think that it was wrong, but your opinion has no more validity than that of the Nazi war criminal who thought it was good.
Moreover, because of its coherence and internal consistency, the Nazi ethic could not be discredited from within. Only from a transcendent vantage point which stands above relativistic, socio-cultural customs can we offer such a critique. But in the absence of God, it is precisely such a vantage point that we lack. One Rabbi who was imprisoned at Auschwitz said that it was as though all the Ten Commandments had been reversed: thou shalt kill, thou shalt lie, thou shalt steal. Mankind has never seen such a hell. And yet, in a real sense, if naturalism is true, our world is Auschwitz. There is no good and evil, no right and wrong. Objective moral values do not exist.
Moreover, 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 observed, if there is no immortality, then all things are permitted. Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest?
Somebody might say that it is in our best self-interest to adopt a moral lifestyle. But clearly, that is not always true: we all know situations in which self-interest runs smack in the face of morality. Moreover, if one is sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos or a Papa Doc Duvalier or even a Donald Trump, then you can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscience and safely live in self-indulgence.
Again, acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inept on a naturalistic world view. Why should you sacrifice your self-interest and especially your life for the sake of someone else? There can be no good reason for adopting such a self-negating course of action on the naturalistic world view. Sacrifice for another person is just stupid. Thus the absence of moral accountability from the philosophy of naturalism makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice a hollow abstraction. We thus come to radically different perspectives on morality depending upon whether or not God exists. If God exists, there is a sound foundation for morality. If God does not exist, then, as Nietzsche saw, we are ultimately landed in nihilism.