Let me begin by stating clearly that this is not a review of Mr. Armstrong’s well received book, Morality Without God. For I have not yet had the pleasure of reading his book and do not wish to mislead anyone into thinking that I have. Nevertheless, the topic at hand is, according to the editorial reviews I’ve read, a prominent theme in Mr. Armstrong’s book. More importantly, the issue is commonly espoused in the writings of the ‘New Atheists’ and evident in the writings of other popular humanist thinkers as well (e.g. Greg Epstein). The basic form of the argument runs something like this: atheists can do good things (i.e. be moral) without reference to some Deity; hence, there is no need to believe in God in order for someone to be moral.
For the record, I think this is a great argument! Atheists can, in fact, do moral things without reference to a deity; and, atheists who do good things do so without holding a belief in God (a statement, I should think, is rather obvious). Christians should not simply affirm this fact but embrace it whole heartedly and with joy. Why? Because the fact that Atheists can do moral things proves what we Christians have been saying all the time—namely, that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.
You see, the ethical dilemma facing Atheists has never been a matter of whether or not someone who denies God’s existence can do moral things—the dilemma has always revolved around how someone who denies God’s existence can justify the existence of morality in the first place. There are three primary ways that atheists have responded to this dilemma: (1) to reject the true existence of any and all values; thus removing the problem of morality from the table, (2) to deny that morality is objective and reduce morality to a set of norms arbitrarily adopted by an individual or a society, (3) to maintain that morality is objective and claim that we understand it and explain it by means of science. But are any of these responses satisfactory?
Let’s begin by analyzing the third response—which is ardently advocated, in some form or another, by the so called “New Atheists.” The idea that science can provide answers about the nature of morality—namely, that science provides sufficient justification for belief in objective morality—is simply mistaken. Science can provide us with tons of information about what human beings and societies do, how the brain works, how creatures evolve over time, and what type of nervous system a mammal has; sadly, it fails to provide one shred of information about what human beings ought to do. In other words, sociologists can tell us what a billion nonreligious people believe about morality; but they can’t tell us what a billion nonreligious people ought to believe about morality. A neurologist can give me a physiological description of pain, but he can’t tell me—by utilizing the study of neurology—why inflicting unwarranted pain on others is morally reprehensible. Sadly, science simply can’t provide the justification we are looking for.
Option two fairs no better. Followers of option two insist that morality is real but maintain that it’s not objective. Rather, they argue that morality is merely an arbitrary convention adopted by an individual or a society. In other words, morality is said to be totally subjective or relative. The problem with this view of morality is that, intuitively, most people don’t believe the brutal rape and murder of an eight year old child is wrong simply as a matter of personal preference or because society deems it wrong; rather, they believe it’s wrong because such heinous acts ought not to be done–which is simply to say that certain actions are objectively evil no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live. If morality is objective, and I believe everyone (aside from a handful of sociopaths) believes that it is, then to define morality in terms of the conventions of individuals or societies hardly provides us with justification for accepting objective morality. Sadly, option two also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.
Frankly, the first option is the only option fully consistent with the atheistic worldview. One should simply recognize and accept the fact that values do not exist. There is no such thing as evil or good—there are merely physical events and observers who assign values to physical events. Like those in option two, all notions of morality are completely arbitrary—entirely dependent upon the observer or on a society. Unlike adherents to option two, followers of option one fail to acknowledge the importance of subjective values and certainly don’t believe that morality is real. Rather, they view adherence to any set of values—any socially contrived moral system–as either weakness or folly. After all, why does it matter what I think is good or bad? – For “I” am simply a temporary configuration of atoms which will soon dissipate and quickly be forgotten. There is no life after death and no one to whom I must answer; there is no overarching meaning or purpose to existence; hence, there is no morality. The only thing that is important is my will to power.
Obviously, if you accept option one you don’t have to justify the existence of objective morality—for such morality, upon your view, does not exist. However, this hardly addresses the problem we set out to solve; namely, how atheists who do good things justify the existence of “good things.” So, option one also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.
Christians, on the other hand, have an answer to the question of why we ought to do what is good; and, in fact, why it is that anybody (whether atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever) can do good. The answer is rooted in the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. The fact is, we were created with the innate ability to discern right from wrong—to comprehend the natural law woven within the fabric of creation. Furthermore, being made in the image of God, human beings are truly valuable and it is, therefore, objectively wrong to mistreat, lie to, abuse, steal from, or murder another human being. Being made in the image of God also means that we have free will, that we were made for the purpose of directing our will towards the good (which is objectively grounded in God’s very nature), and that we are, in fact, capable of doing so.
Now, the fact that atheists deny God’s existence and scoff at the notion that God has anything to do with morality, has little effect on their ontological status as human beings. In other words–one does not fail to be made in the image of God simply because he denies God’s existence. It is this very truth which explains why atheists can and will continue to do good things.