Can we be good without God?

Why be Nice?

A lot of us probably know some really nice atheists. They wait their turn in line instead of jumping to the head of the queue. They say “please” and “thank you.” But why should they?

I once offended a high school friend of mine when I suggested that Christians have a better reason than anybody else to be good. “My parents are good,” he snapped back, “and they don’t believe in God.” But in most of our Western societies it is hard to separate the current crop of nonbelievers from their churchgoing heritage. Perhaps they are nice because their God-fearing parents raised them to be that way, or because they are conforming to what our still vaguely Christian culture expects of them.

If God is not the best reason for being good, then what is? Atheists offer different answers to this question. Here are two of the most common approaches:

Option A: There is no reason for being good because there is no such thing as good and bad, or right and wrong.

Option B: We can provide our own reasons for being good without relying on God.

Ethics? What Ethics?

Option A is known as moral nihilism (from the Latin word for “nothing”). In River Out of Eden (1995), Richard Dawkins pulls no punches:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Ten years earlier, Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson wrote this gem for a New Scientist article:

In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding.

Here is the idea: If I happen to follow Jesus in loving my neighbour as myself (Mark 12:31), then I am less inclined to start something that could hurt my own survival or the survival of my nearest relatives. But do not think for a minute that Jesus said something true. Remember: morality is an illusion.

What if I see Bill torturing children for fun? Surely that would be wrong, right? No, because I will never find a real thing called “wrongness” in what Bill is doing.

So, what is going on when I say things like, “It is wrong to torture little children for fun”?

Moral nihilists are not very helpful on this point. Some will say that “wrong” is just a word we use for behaviours we do not like. And then they will tell us to pretend that morality is real so that we can build a better life together. Or not. I mean, if there is no right and wrong, why bother?

None of this fits with our real-world moral experiences. We argue about right and wrong, but we hardly ever think that right and wrong are bogus. Other atheists agree, and know they need a better story.

Human is as Human Does

Christians have never claimed that they are the only moral people around. The apostle Paul recognized as much in the nonbelievers of his day. They may not know God’s law written in the Bible, but they show God’s law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). Lots of people other than Christians believe it is wrong to steal. Knowing right from wrong is not the problem.

The problem is this: If God does not exist, how can we defend the idea that stealing is wrong? Option B atheists want to draw on human reason. They will appeal to logic, intuition, and facts about us and the world in which we live. As we are about to see, they will miss three key ingredients that we expect to find in any account of morality.

MISSING: Obligation

Here are some facts about nature: A lion kills a zebra, but no one calls it murder. Spotted hyenas chase the lion away, but no one calls it robbery. Every hyena fends for itself without helping the weaker members of its pack, but no one blames them for being selfish and uncaring. Duties and obligations are something we find in humans, not animals. This is not a promising start if we want to create values out of facts.

Things do not improve when we switch from biology to psychology. Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that humans need to feel loved. There is no line of logical reasoning that can get us to the following conclusion: humans ought to love one another. Atheists have always had a problem leaping from the “is” of nature to the “ought” of morality.

MISSING: Accountability

What if we can steal without fear of retribution? What if we are stronger? What if there are more of us? “Might makes right,” right? No. Most of us would probably agree that moral monsters like Hitler should pay for their crimes. Instead, Hitler chose to die on his own terms. There was no justice in that cowardly act.

The same problem applies in reverse to sacrificial acts of kindness that go unrewarded and unrecognised. If an anonymous hero stops to rescue a little girl on his way to work, causing him to be late and lose his job, and if on the next day that same child is killed by a drunk driver, then what was the point? In the end, our hero did little if anything for himself, the girl, or humanity in general. If there is no accountability then there is no hope that the heroes and Hitlers of this world will get what they deserve.

MISSING: A Source of Values

Option B atheists think that evolution might have set things up so that we naturally want others to do really well. Or they might think that evolution has made us smart enough to figure it out on our own. There is no evidence that evolution has done any such thing, and no one knows how evolution could pull it off. In any case, their point is this: we are supposed to find value in one another’s preferences, projects, dreams and hopes. Things might go badly for everyone concerned if caveman Zog steals Grok’s wonderfully crafted spearhead. But notice: “things might go badly” is not the same as “morally evil.”

And how about Ug and his fellow Neanderthals across the valley? What might be “theft” to humans is “acting in the best interests of the species” to Neanderthals. So it might make good sense for Ug to take Grok’s spearhead without asking. But “good sense” is not the same as “morally good.”

If we are looking for a foundation to morality we will not find it in nature, psychology, common sense, or reasons that do not involve God.

God and Morality

All three ingredients of morality are available to people who believe in the God of theism.

  • Obligation: Duties and obligations have come to humans from God (1 John 4:19-21).
  • Accountability: God will reward the good and punish the evil (John 5:28-29; Romans 2:16; Hebrews 6:10). There is no such thing as an anonymous act of good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Matthew 6:4,6,18; Ephesians 5:6-14).
  • Source of values: God is our model for what is good (Deuteronomy 6:24).

A lot of atheists get hung up on the last point. What if God tells us to torture children? If the command comes from God, then it must be the right thing to do. But most of us would agree that torturing children is wrong. If we can figure this out on our own, then we do not need God to tell us what we should and should not do.

The problem with arguments like these is that they do not apply to the God of theism. By His very nature, God is perfectly good (Psalm 100:5; 143:10; James 1:17). It is impossible for Him to issue a command that clashes with His divine goodness.

Atheists will reply that the God of the Bible is, in fact, not good. He allows us to suffer terribly on a day-to-day basis. He ordered the Israelite army to kill every man, woman and child who stood in its way (e.g., Joshua 6:21; 1 Samuel 15:3).

Two quick points. First, this does not change our argument. If an all-good God exists, we have solid reasons for doing what is right; if an all-good God does not exist, then we lack those reasons.

Second, the problem of suffering is answered within the context of faith (see Answers 2). As for God’s military orders, atheists are hardly in a position to point fingers. Either they have no morality (Option A), or their morality has no foundation (Option B).

In the end, being a “nice nihilist” is not enough: niceness is not a substitute for goodness. Being a “moral atheist” is not enough, either. Sam Harris says living a good life without God means promoting “human flourishing.” But why should I? And who or what is going to hold me accountable if I don’t do what Sam says?

If God does not exist, then a life of doing what is right is ultimately pointless. But if God does exist (and He does – see Answers 1), then we have a standard of goodness that goes beyond mere facts about biology and human nature (Romans 8:8).

If my “flourishing” depends on other people it can disappear in an instant. But if it depends on an eternal, all-good God who wants the best for me – all of me, body and soul – then I have the best possible reason to put my trust in Him. We know what God counts as a good life, but are we ready to live it?

Copyright © 2014 Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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