“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine!” As C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity life is full of little quarrels such as these (who hasn’t bickered over a bit of orange?). And yet there is something extraordinarily peculiar about such statements, for they imply that an objective moral standard exists—a standard that one ought to know exists.
The theist argues that if objective moral truths exist then it follows reasonably that God exists. The atheist, in turn, responds either by asserting the incoherence of the moral argument (perhaps by appealing to an naturalistic origin of moral truths) or denying the existence of objective moral truths.
This is no side-issue among those seriously interested in the God question. In The Miracle of Theism the late Oxford philosopher and prominent atheist J.L. Mackie conceded that “[m]oral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”
In a similar fashion of intellectual honesty, popular atheist blogger Luke Muehlhauser recalls a talk he gave at the University of California:
During the Q&A following my talk at UCSD, a young Christian woman asked, “Without God, how can you have any morality?”
The mostly skeptical audience laughed, as if it was a stupid question. Geez, not that again.
Well, it’s not a stupid question. It is a very good, important, difficult question [emphasis added].
Indeed there do seem to be good reasons to believe that if there really are objective moral truths binding upon all of humanity—a common example is “torturing children for fun is always wrong”—then such truths (or laws) must have their origin in a transcendent lawmaker with adequate authority. Otherwise where did they come from?
One straight-forward way of framing the moral argument is as follows:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral truths do not exist.
2. Objective moral truths do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
This post, however, is not concerned primarily with defending this form (or other forms) of the theistic argument from morality in any sufficient sort of way. For two thorough philosophical treatments of the argument click here and here.
Rather it is my intention here to clear up three common misconceptions about the argument and what it implies.
Must One Believe In God To Be Moral?
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that one’s belief in God is not absolutely self-evident, but only naturally evident “in a general and confused way.” Thus it is not immoral to reject the existence of God provided the skeptic is following his reason and obeying his conscience to the best of his ability.
One misconception concerning the moral argument is the assumption that theists are saying that atheists cannot be moral because they do not believe in a divine moral lawgiver. In other words, believers can be moral—and unbelievers cannot. But this is a straw man and not at all what theists are arguing.
The moral argument is only concerned with who is moral in the sense that if God does not exist then no one is morally good in the objective, mind-independent sense. According to the argument, objective morality is contingent on the existence of God. So if God does not exist, then the ten-year-old who donates his entire piggy bank to the Children’s Hospital cannot be said to be morally better than the serial rapist—innocence has no objectively moral meaning if there is no objectively binding moral law.
But the argument is not concerned with who specifically is morally good in the sense of the aforementioned misconception. Rather, it is concerned with why there are moral truths at all.
The bottom line is this: if objective moral truths exist then God exists; and if God exists then—provided he obeys the moral law “written on his heart”—the skeptic may potentially be considered as (or more) morally upright than his theist pal who fails to live in good conscience. Acting deliberately according to one’s own conscience is the universal key to “being good.”
So it turns out that it is possible to be a good atheist. But what makes an act “good”?
A Dilemma For The Theist?
The moral argument positions God as the one independent moral lawmaker of the universe.
Thus the next misconception about the moral argument is that God is therefore an arbitrary law maker—something akin to a despot—who imposes random laws on to those underneath him for no good reason. On this view, God could have created a world where rape and torture were considered moral goods while marital fidelity and self-defense were considered abominations. Faced with this misconception we are forced to ask whether God has any good reason for prescribing the moral laws he has. In another world could God have prescribed a moral code so completely contradictory to this world?
Remember the question I asked above: what makes an act objectively right or good? What makes saving a baby from a burning house really and truly heroic, rather than just subjectively heroic if that’s your opinion? What makes child abuse really and truly bad? Because if an action is good or bad simply “because God says so” without further qualification, God would seem to be a tyrant guilty of opposing arbitrary moral obligations on his creatures with no rational qualification. But as Pope Bendict XVI emphasized in his famous Regensberg Address: “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
Then what is God’s reason for asserting the moral law as he has? If God must appeal to a moral law outside of himself then that would call into question his sovereignty, omnipotence, and his status as the absolute source of all goodness—for he would be bound by an authority outside of himself. He could no longer be called the Uncaused Cause Of All Things.
Thus it would seem that the believer is awkwardly caught in a trap between a dictator of arbitrary “cuz I said so” laws or a God who is not all-powerful. This is called the Euthyphro Dilemma and it’s been around for a very long time. The thing is, however, that it is a false dilemma—at least for the Christian.
For the Christian, God is the sheer act of “to be” itself. God is pure existence—and thus he contains within himself all perfections to an unlimited (or infinite) degree. Among those perfections are infinite goodness and infinite knowledge—which means that God’s laws are not only good but free of mistakes. They are perfect in every way—and they exist to make us perfectly human in every way. I’ll try explain this further.
God could never create anything in vain. This now understood, it is interesting that Aristotle observed that “nature does nothing in vain”. In other words, everything that God creates has been created for reason, namely, to become to the fullest extent what it is. And because God is infinitely good, everything he creates is good by virtue of its very existence! But not everything lives up to its potential.
Now here’s the key to solving the dilemma above: God wills the good—and an action is objectively good—because God is good.
What The Moral Argument is Not Saying (and Some Final Thoughts)
So the argument is not saying that atheists are immoral. It is not saying that God arbitrarily chooses which laws he will oppose on humanity. Nor is it saying that God must appeal to a moral authority outside of himself.
To summarize: a thing is not good ‘just cuz’; but a thing is good inasmuch as it acts according to what it actually is; and it is not good when it acts in contradiction to what it is (or what it is for). So a thing’s action is good when it acts in accordance with nature. An axe is good inasmuch as it is used to chop wood for fire (an axe is for chopping wood); but an axe is bad inasmuch as it is used to shave one’s beard (an axe is not for slicing whiskers).
Finally, man is made to be “divinized” or to become like God; and God is love—or is loving if you prefer— in the most pure and infinite sense. So inasmuch as a man acts in love, he acts according to his nature—and that is why no act of love could ever be considered “bad”.
The moral law is a description of how man is to be a man. That is, the moral law is a prescription, not arbitrarily constructed, but loving revealed so that man can become fully himself—and thus achieve everlasting happiness. Therefore an action is right or good because God commands it, yes, but not merely because God commands it. We must take one more step back and realize that God can only command what is right or good because it is his nature to do so—God is good, and therefore all he commands is necessarily good.
It turns out that God has given us an objectively binding moral law—a moral law from which no human is exempt—so that we might become perfectly ourselves. Every human, believer and unbeliever, feels its weight on their heart; and every human has within them the capacity to “be good” or act according to their conscience (what Newman called “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”). Thus philosopher Ed Feser writes, “In this way God loves us and loves us perfectly, because to love is to will another’s good, and God cannot fail to will what is good for us.”
So the moral argument does not exempt the atheist from being morally good; rather it gives the atheist stable, rational grounds to acknowledge an objective moral order which governs humanity. It offers the skeptic a rational justification for that pressing intuition on their heart that love is better than hate—or more fundamentally that love in fact is.