The question is in the title, “Can Atheists Be Moral?” The answer to that question is rather is easy to determine. We have no reason to suspect that atheists cannot be moral individuals. I personally know atheists who seem to act morally in their daily lives, despite their cursing at something they think does not exist. So the short answer would be YES! But, I’m interested in questions that goes deeper than that.
- Is morality relative?
- On what basis do humans place morality?
I am going to make the case for objective morality and that objective morality is based on God. The most common objection that comes up in this argument is a misunderstanding of terms. So first allow me to define the term objective morality. To define the term, it must be broken down into its two parts. To say that something is objective is to say that it is independent of what people think or perceive. By contrast, to say that something is subjective is just to say that it is not objective; that is to say, it is dependent on what human persons think or perceive. To say that there is objective morality is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes them to be so. An example of objective morality would be that torturing little babies for fun is wrong no matter what anyone believes about it. Raping and beating women for sport is always wrong no matter what anyone believes about it.
To discover a basis of objective morality I want to show that this entire subject matter is completely outside the realm of science. Science deals with only the physical world. Science cannot tell us what ought to happen, it can only tell us what will probably happen under certain circumstances. Objective morality on the other hand tells us how we ought to act. To attempt to explain morality on a scientific, evolutionary basis is a fatal category error. Morality is not physical. You cannot weigh it or see what color it is. If morality has its basis in Darwinian evolution, then morality cannot be objective. If there is no God and we evolved from slime, then we have no higher moral status than slime because there is nothing beyond us to instill us with a sense of objective morality or dignity. If morality had its basis in the Darwinian evolutionary process, then raping women to propagate the DNA of men should be considered right. Murder of the weak, invalid, and elderly should be the norm. This is just nonsense that does not deserve any further treatment here.
Something further needs to be addressed before moving forward. What I am not claiming is that belief in God is required to know and recognize objective morality. Rather, I am making the claim that God’s existence is necessary for objective morality itself to exist.
Let’s answer some objections to objective morality before we make our case for God.
Moral relativism says that societies or individuals decide for themselves what is right and wrong. There are three types of moral relativism: cultural relativism, conventionalism, and individual subjectivism. Since this is a blog and not a book, I will not break these down. Instead, I will try to cover them wholly with two examples. First, for one to say, “all truth (including moral truth) is relative” is a self-refuting statement. You should reply, “is that truth relative?” You can see it is self-refuting. Furthermore, if he is claiming all truth is relative, then why is he pushing his supposed “truth” on me? I’m amazed there are people who believe this way but I see it nearly every single day.
A second way to dispel moral relativism is to use the Nazis as an example. When they went to trial, their defense was that they were following the rule of law in their country. They said they were simply following orders based on the views of their country’s government. As we know, justice was served by appealing to a higher, objective moral standard. This is important to remember when you hear an atheist make the claim that each society dictates the moral standard. So which society is correct? Hitler’s or Mother Teresa’s? If it’s all based on the opinion of that particular society then it should have been right for the Nazis to murder millions of innocent people and wrong for the rest of the world to condemn them. After all, it’s all based on subjective opinion.
So let’s cut to the chase. If there is no God and no Heaven or Hell, then no ultimate justice will ever be served. The baby torturer and the serial rapist will simply become worm food when they die. The most well-known atheistic evangelist, Richard Dawkins, says, “Too bad. Just because we wish there was ultimate justice doesn’t mean there is.” Well, I don’t doubt that. I don’t do much “wishful” thinking either. But the point is this: if there is no justice, then it follows that there is no injustice. Something cannot be deemed wrong if there is no ultimate right. C.S. Lewis said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” We strive to perfect our society, to reach for some unattainable utopia while presupposing that we somehow know we still need to progress. How do we know this? How do we know we still have room to improve ourselves? Louis Markos put it nicely when he wrote that a supposed materialistic society can strive to be progressive, but without any fixed, transcendent standard of good and evil, right and wrong, how can we know that we have progressed?
Speaking of Richard Dawkins, he made a remarkable admission about objective morality during an interview with Justin Brierley after he maintained that our sense of morality is an outcome of evolution. The audio can be found here. You may fast forward to the 5:29 mark. Ill reproduce part of the statement here.
Brierley: When you make a value judgment, don’t you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good is that it’s good? And you don’t have any way to stand on that statement.
Dawkins: My value judgment itself could come from my evolutionary past.
Brierley: So therefore it’s just as random in a sense as any product of evolution.
Dawkins: You could say that….nothing about it makes it more probable than there is anything supernatural.
Brierley: Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.
Dawkins: You could say that, yeah.
Wow! So according to the atheistic evangelist, Dawkins believes that rape is simply socially unfashionable. At least he is being a consistent atheist. After all, without God, there are no objective moral standards. Dawkins thinks all of our thoughts and behaviors are simply the blind results of molecules bouncing around in our brains. In River out of Eden, Dawkins says,
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt,
and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference….DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
So it’s very clear, the new atheists can not only determine a basis for objective morality, many of them deny its very existence! In order for atheists to live with themselves in a purposeless universe they must steal from God. That is to say, they borrow things from a theistic worldview such as peace, justice, ethics, etc. because they have no basis for these things on a purely physical, materialistic worldview.
Another atheistic evangelist, Sam Harris, says he actually believes in objective morality. He bases his position of morality on learning about the well-being of conscious creatures. The problem with this position is that it merely shows us what method to use to discover what is moral, not what actually makes something moral. If you didn’t get that last sentence, please re-read it. It is very important to understand that I am not arguing an epistemological position about morality but rather an ontological position. In other words, we aren’t talking about how we know morality. We are talking about why it objectively exists. Toddlers can know morality by how it makes them feel. If a child steals a toy from another child then feelings are hurt. What I am getting at is the deeper question: why does having something stolen from us bring about a sense of injustice? You can know morality exists while denying God. I can know a book exists and at the same time deny its author. But there would be no book unless an author existed. Atheists pull this same nonsense with God and objective morality. Many of them claim to know objective morality while denying God exists, but there would be no objective morality unless God exists.
Another common objection to objective morality is the Euthyphro dilemma. Euthyphro (a character of Plato) asks, “Does God do something because it is good or is it good because God does it? The problem here is that Plato offers only two options when there is a third option that he left out. The whole question assumes good exists wholly apart from God. This is a solid misunderstanding of God (at least the Christian God). For God does not look to a standard beyond himself. If he were required to look to a standard beyond himself then he wouldn’t be God. God is also not arbitrary. So the third option left out is God’s very nature is the standard of an unchanging moral nature. This so called “dilemma” was answered hundreds of years ago but for some reason the new atheists bring it up from time to time.
Let’s make the case for an objective moral law giver.
Again, this is a blog, not a book, so I cannot spell out every single piece of evidence. There are so many subjects (such as altruism) I just don’t have time to touch at least at this moment. But along with answering the objections above, I think I can give a quick summary to show that God is the most reasonable basis for objective morality.
Objective morality contains a sense of obligation and oughtness that is universal, authoritative, and outweighs considerations of culture, time, and place. Objective morality is always discovered and not invented. Objective morals are prescriptive to how we should act, not descriptive of the world. But where did these objective morals originate? Because morals cannot be scientifically tested, because they deal with purpose and will, because they are universal and transcend societies and time, their origination cannot be rooted in anything physical. Because they universally and transcendently prescribe how we ought to act then we can conclude that something prescribed must have a prescriber. This prescriber must also transcend societies, cultures, people, and time itself. We can employ two simple syllogisms to help us think about God as the grounds for objective morals. One of them goes like this:
- If a personal God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective moral values do exist.
- Therefore, a personal God exists.
Most of this article has been devoted to proving the first two premises correct. I have briefly shown that objective morals do exist, and I’ve shown that it would be more reasonable to ground them in a transcendent being (God) as opposed to grounding them in materialistic objects or processes. Therefore, the conclusion follows. Here is a simpler syllogism:
- Every law has a lawgiver.
- There is an objective moral law.
- Therefore, there is an objective moral law giver.
Let me summarize what we have briefly covered in this article:
- There exists objective morality.
- Objective morality holds that something is good or evil independently of human beliefs about it.
- Science is not the proper category for discussing morality.
- Belief in God is not required to know and recognize objective morals.
- Moral relativism is false.
- In a world based on materialism, we cannot justify good and evil, right and wrong, justice or injustice.
- Richard Dawkins thinks morality is arbitrary.
- God is a reasonable explanation for objective morality.
 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith 3rd Edition (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008) p. 173.
 Craig, p. 173.
 Norman Geisler & Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2004) p. 189.
 C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) p. 41.
 Louis Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010) p. 76
 This interview was pointed out to me in the book by Frank Turek, Stealing from God, Why Atheists Need God To Make Their Case (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014) p. 90.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1996) p. 133.
 I owe this idea to Frank Turek’s book, Stealing from God.
 Turek, p. 100.