Is the Moral Argument Unbelievable?

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The moral argument has, of course, been subjected to a wide range of criticisms over the years. This article summarises our response to those we confront most often and to the more compelling arguments advanced against us recently.See – The Evidence for God: Morality for our cumulative case to God’s existence from morality. (Our thanks to Justin Brierly for promoting our article “The Evidence for God: Morality” on his Facebook page and to all those who offered constructive criticisms and insightful questions.)

Clarifying the argument

The reality of morality

God’s might doesn’t make the rules right

Science can’t explain morality away

How moral are the scriptures?

1. Clarifying the argument

To clarify: the argument here is not “if atheism is true we are on a slippery slope to a nihilistic society. Therefore, we should try to believe in some religion.” The argument is “morality is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for the central features of morality is deeply unconvincing. Atheism does not provide a convincing explanation for morality; theism does. Therefore, morality provides good evidence for theism ”

To explain morality is to explain principles of value and conduct. There is a wide consensus that objectively real moral principles would have at least five traits. They would be obligatory– they tell us what we ought to do in a given situation; they guide our actions. Such obligations are overriding – they take precedence over other considerations, be they aesthetic, legal, or political. They would also be universalizable –they apply to all who are in relevantly similar situations; if it is acceptable for Jones to “kick a harmless puppy” then it is acceptable for everyone “to kick a harmless puppy.” If there is an exception to that rule – perhaps we might be allowed to kick an innocent puppy to save its life – then the exception counts for everyone in a relevantly similar situation.

Real moral principles must be liveable – they must be able to motivate us to change our behaviour. Moral principles must be convincing and plausible. The life they prescribe must be achievable. Finally, moral principles would be deep – they do not only prescribe acts and evaluate consequences. Moral principles also deal with our characters, our motives, our goals, the communities in which we live and the traditions that shape us.

2. The Reality of Morality

The mere fact of moral disagreement does not undermine the objectivity of morality. Cross-culturally, there is surprising agreement on a number of moral principles. Virtues such as courage, kindness, love, compassion, integrity, perseverance, trustworthiness, friendship, comradeship and patience are valued across various cultures. Cross-culturally, certain moral rules continually reoccur: for example, some version ofthe Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has been endorsed by Christians, Confucians and Buddhists. Some moral prohibitions have been found across many diverse societies: lying, stealing and killing innocent human beings are forbidden.

Moral disagreement tends to occur when humans decide how to rank and apply these moral values. Is it better to be courageous or patient? Is it better to be patriotic or compassionate? It might be wrong to kill an innocent person: but who counts as an innocent person? The unborn child? The new-born child? If the children of my enemies will grow up to kill me, are they innocent? If I know that children will die when my armed forces destroy an enemy city, am I deliberately murdering the innocent? Or is this merely the cost of war? Or should we be absolute pacifists because war is just industrialised mass murder?

Of course, different cultures can profoundly disagree – the Hutu Power movement and the Interahamwe militia disagreed with the international c0nsensus that the children of Tutsi parents were innocents who should not be killed. Indeed, many Hutu extremists claimed that only those with inside knowledge of Rwandan society and history could understand the need for the genocide. However, the mere fact of moral disagreement is not evidence that the genocide in Rwanda was not absolutely, objectively evil. The Interahamwe should have realised that their acts were self-serving and irrationaly destructive; they should have known they were participating in great evil.

All that moral disagreement  can demonstrates is that human rationality is limited and that our moral faculties are not perfectly reliable. It seems clear to us that there are moral facts. It’s difficult to see how any scientific explanation of moral feelings, or any argument for moral anti-realism, would enable us to live as if there are no moral demands on us. It seems impossible to live as if morality is an illusion; there are certain judgments that we will not compromise on. Pleas for justice and mercy will place demands on us, whether we like it or not; we cannot treat them as the subjective preferences of contingent creatures.

We are regularly forced to use moral concepts like “malicious”, “compassionate”, “courageous” and “selfish” to deepen our understanding of other persons, to predict their behaviour and to recommend courses of action. They might not show up in test tubes, or under microscopes, but moral facts stubbornly refuse to leave our world-views. We can no more doubt them than we can the existence of other minds; we just ought to accept morality is real.

It is obviously true that morality is of greater value if it is objective. If morality is something which humans invent, or it is a useful fiction foisted on us by our evolutionary history, then in the long run it does not truly matter if an innocent child has been tortured. If moral anti-realism is true, then when the innocent suffer there is no objective change in the state of the universe – the only thing which changes are our feelings or our perspective. That strikes us as unthinkable and unbelievable.

3. God’s Might Does Not Make His Rules Right

God does not need to consult a set of moral rules before he decides on what is right and good; if that was the case, theism would not explain morality. But God does not arbitrarily and capriciously decide on the nature of right and wrong either. That would not adequately illuminate or explain the nature of good and evil because might does not make right. Furthermore, it would rob the statement “God is good” of all meaning – it would reduce to “God does whatever he likes, and we have to like whatever he does”!

Goodness is not grounded merely in God’s power and God’s will. Goodness is grounded in God’s nature and what is right is decided by the type of world God decided to create. What God does must always reflects who God is: and God must be a maximally great being (MGB) – the greatest thing that we can conceive. Why would we define God as a “Maximally Great Being”? Well, God is meant to be the being most worthy of worship. If there could be something greater than God, it would be most worthy of worship. So, by definition, if God exists then God is a maximally great being.

God depends on nothing else for his existence. Nothing made God, and everything else that exists was made by him and depends on him.If everything else depends on God for its existence then God is supremely valuable for everything else in the universe. God is unlimited, personal power. We all know what it is to be personal: to be thinking, conscious beings. We can all readily experience personal power – this is simply the power to make choices. Our power is quite limited in nature because we are finite physical beings. As sole creator, God’s power and awareness could not be limited by anything else. There are no limits on what God knows and what God can do, other than the limits of what is logically possible. Furthermore, there are no limits on God’s rationality. God cannot be corrupted, distracted or misled by the intellectual vices that plague humans.

“The good” is what every fully informed, rational agent will view as desirable; if something is “good” it is irrational not to pursue it. So, are there any true, objective, universal goods? If so, what explains their reality? If God is all-knowing with unlimited rationality, then God’s values are ideal. The earth and the opinions of human beings might pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal; he would be supremely rational and his judgements would be completely trustworthy. So we should value what pleases God – because whatever God values most is “the good”.  So God provides a transcendent source of value for our finite universe.

We must explain the reality of moral obligations as well as moral values. Obligations impose rules upon us. A true obligations will be taken seriously; we will be motivated to meet it and feel guilty when we fail to discharge it. Obligations are also personal – we have them to a community or a person. It is difficult to see how we can feel obligated to an abstract principle or hypothetical rule. Are obligations useful fictions imposed on us by society and biology? Or are there true, objective, universal moral obligations? If so, what explains their reality? If theism is true ,we have been designed by God for God; therefore, it is imperative that we follow his guidance. God provides a transcendent source of moral obligation because he calls us to pursue the good. This places a real and powerful demand upon us.

Could God have issued a wicked command or desired evil? Not at all. Whatever else we say about the nature of evil, we must acknowledge that it is irrational, chaotic and destructive. Part of the reason it is irrational is that evil typically requires a deliberately myopic worldview. Evil seeks the advantage of a single community, person or desire above all others; it is incapable of genuine sacrifice. The racist seeks the advance of his own community to the disadvantage of all others; the envious person wishes his own benefit to the exclusion of everyone else; the addict seeks the satisfaction of his immediate desires, ignoring his own future. If God is perfectly rational and all-knowing he is incapable of having the myopia necessary for evil.

Consider hatred as a paradigm of evil. It is an irrational, destructive desire. Hatred abandons reason for the sake of power and destruction. Evil perverts rationality, but God is perfectly rational. Evil is needlessly destructive, but  God is a perfect creator. God’s purposes cannot be arbitrary, given his nature. God would want us to flourish and be happy by having a deep relationship with him. This sets constraints on what he would create and command.  God could not desire evil or command us to be evil.

Crucially, morality depends upon the relationship between God and his creation. Consider how human dignity simply follows from facts about God and facts about us. We need a very high view of human nature to explain our moral convictions. Consider the statement “the sadistic torture of children is wrong”. That statement expresses a rule – “don’t torture!”- but it also appeals to a value. The underlying value, on which the rule is based, is the preciousness of innocent human life. To be genuinely morally precious, the value of innocent life must be universal. If something is good, it is good everywhere and always. The value cannot be the product of our desires. Bloodshed does not become good because a society decides to worship war; bravery does not become bad because we prefer life and comfort to compassion and sacrifice. The value of humans must be part of the “furniture of the universe.”

On theism we have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. Given who God is, given who we are, and given what God made us to be, it is impossible for humans not to have immense significance and dignity. It is not that God whimsically decided that humans are of value and that murder is wrong. Our value follows logically from the fact that we resemble God in important ways and that were made for a relationship with. And the duty not to murder follows logically from these facts. God did not have to create us – but because he did, our value follows from who he is and our potential relationship to him.

4. Scientific Materialism Can’t Explain Morality Away

It is true that biologists, psychologists and sociologists can provide explanations for the existence of human moral codes. So we feel what Hume might call “passions for the common good” because there was selection for altruistic behaviour in our past; or perhaps certain behavioural codes have proved to be pragmatically useful. Therefore, we impose obligations upon ourselves and upon others for the benefit of society. But science cannot tell us if any of these codes are true. Are we merely projecting our wishes and attitudes onto the world when we make moral judgements? Or are some of our moral judgements true? Are there moral facts?

Scientific materialism certainly cannot explain why moral values are obligatory and overriding. First, it cannot explain why we should value our passion for the common good and a rational society over our passion for selfishness. If a touch of ambition and a little selfishness leads to a life of good wine, good books and good food, why shouldn’t we indulge ourselves? After all, in the long run we’re all dead. The species is doomed. Selfishness can be calculating and manipulative – so if we live in an amoral, uncaring universe it is just as rational as altruism. And why should we worry about what we might have wanted if we had been poor? The fact is, we’re not, and we only have one life to lead.

Set the immoral passions aside. Why should we cultivate compassion when we could use that time to develop our wit or our culinary skills? After all, those are perfectly rational goals. Our time on earth is limited and we cannot pursue all of our goals. Now, a central feature of morality is that it over-rides other considerations. Moral obligations impose themselves; they demand that we set our other goals aside. So why should we give preference to our moral goals? We merely have a set of evolved desires, and not all of those desires are for the good of others.

Second, we cannot reduce morality to the good of the species. Suppose we discovered an intelligent, alien race, very much like our own. Imagine that this species has survived through cannibalism and other cruel practices. Further suppose that the stability of their society was founded on public displays of infanticide and ritualised torture. Finally, imagine that this race argued that “the good” was whatever promoted their survival.

Even if it could be demonstrated that these practices satisfied the majority of the desires held by members of that race, and even if it was demonstrated that their murderous and cruel activities allowed them to thrive in their environment, we would not say that their practices were “good”. The universe would be a better place without such a species in it. This is not merely an abstract thought experiment. Humans do not merely desire compassion and love; if history teaches us anything, it is that we often prefer progress, war, sated lust and gluttony to helping our fellows.

Hitler’s vision of the “good life” glorified war, hatred and ruthlessness. “Moral” visions that promote greed, naked power or cruel oppression remain deeply wicked no matter what material benefits they bring. Suppose somewhere, some day soon, someone presses a red button and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile’s rain down on several continents. Suppose we end up living in small, isolated, social groups once more. Would those older moral intuitions suddenly become good? Could ruthlessness suddenly become a virtue if modern society collapsed? Or suppose some jolly clever theorist produced equations and statistics which provided strong evidence that too much compassion was detrimental to humanities progress and survival. Would anyone reconsider his evaluation of altruism? Hardly. Moral values go too deep; they are as real as matter and thought, and do not need to be justified with statistics.

5. God, Morality and Scripture

When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that we need the Bible to have moral knowledge. God, not scripture, is the ground of morality, right and wrong, good and evil! The apostle Paul was quite clear: a person can know deep moral truths even if they have never heard the scriptures. We know the meaning of the good (something which deserves to be desired) the right (permissible) and the wrong (the forbidden) without knowing who or what makes certain things good or right or wrong.

Paul explicitly teaches that conscience reveals something of God’s will in Romans 2 and 1 Corinthians 5 (note that these passages also assume that unbelievers often obey the moral law when those who know the scriptures do not!) And the Bible (in the book of Proverbs) is also clear that a little practical wisdom can reveal the difference between right and wrong (after all, God is wise and made us to be wise). So knowledge of many important moral rules does not depend on hearing them from the Bible, or even on knowing that they were given by God.

Still, some might argue that the Old Testament scriptures contain too many strange and apparently uncivilised commands; surely a good God could not have inspired them? But at the very most, this would only be evidence that certain passages of scripture were not inspired by God. That is not even an argument against the general reliability and moral authority of the Bible. Jesus’s ethics are quite clear and obviously these are of supreme importance to the Christian worldview. Furthermore, the central message of the Bible is also quite clear – and it is supremely morally challenging.

Hebrews 1v1-2   makes it clear that the message of the Bible centres on Jesus: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The Scriptures insist that we confess our moral failings, depend on him totally to forgive us because he died for us, and allow him to reshape us in his image because he rose again for us. This is a message of hope, love, forgiveness, rebirth and moral transformation. It is important that we do not lose sight of this landscape when examining a few locations which make us uneasy.

We also worry that the laws given in the Torah are often judged much too harshly by modern readers; we think that a great deal of care needs to be taken when evaluating the commandments God gave to Moses. First, the Old Testament laws need to be read in a narrative context. The Bible tells the story of God’s saving activity. Briefly, God calls a people; then that people receive a messiah who will deliver the rest of the world. The law was not given, then, to turn the Israelites into morally perfect, enlightened civilization. No set of laws could accomplish that! The human hearts must be renewed from within; it cannot be reformed by enforcing a set of laws established on high.

No set of laws can create a utopia because we mostly prefer rebellion to obedience, darkness to light. The law is not meant to be a blueprint for a perfect society; it is important, rather, because it is has a crucial role in Israel’s story. Second, the Old Testament needs to be read in its historical context.  We can then see how God directed Israel on to a better path. It is not only that the heart of the law is to love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself.  We should note the similarities between the Old Testament law and  other ancient Near Eastern “law codes”, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  We will then see the striking improvements made by the law given to Israel.

Third, when we study any ancient literature, we have to evaluate it in its own culture and context, not ours. We need to understand that ancient law codes did not function like modern law codes. Ancient  law codes functioned as value systems or social visions; they did not set out exceptionless precepts . The punishment in the command illustrated the gravity of the crime; it did not follow that this punishment should be carried out in every (or any) instance. The  Old Testament gives many example of faithful judges and Kings (the early Solomon, for example, or Josiah); there is no record of these men ruthlessly executing trespassers or Sabbath breakers.Ancient Near Eastern society did not have a modern penal system! Bureaucrats did not take written records of legal precedents; prisons,in the modern sense, did not exist. Ancient laws were tough, to ensure that society remained orderly. The death sentence is often mentioned to illustrate the gravity of the crime; it also shows the people just how much power resides in the elders who judged them.

Fourth, we need to read the law in its canonical context. That is, the books of the law should not be read in isolation. The bible is a collection of books which interpret each other. The law was to be read alongside the prophets and the books of wisdom. Therefore, all the laws were meant to be applied with wisdom, mercy and compassion. Indeed, the prophetic tradition challenges the heartless application of God’s law. law must be read for its theological message. Strange as it may seem, the law was given to reveal our inability to keep it.

Finally, The Old Testament laws were never intended to be God’s final word on right and wrong: Jesus spends most of the Sermon on the Mount outlining the heart of the Old Testament; a deeper, more challenging set of commandments focused on the heart and not ritual purity or outward conformity.If an individual, never-mind a society, could not keep the laws of the covenant with Moses, what chance do we have of keeping Jesus’ command to love God and one another perfectly? One of Scripture’s central messages is that humanity is so fallen that we are unable to keep God’s commands.  The sheer act of disobedience delights us. The more perfect the command (eg. “love your neighbour as yourself”) the more stubborn our resistance. So we need to be forgiven and transformed. The law, above all, reveals our need for salvation!

Still, some Old Testament texts will remain difficult to understand. God’s knowledge is superior to ours; it would be very odd if we never found ourselves puzzled or confused by his commands or actions. It is not surprising that, at times, we find it very difficult to understand God’s commands. (Consider his order to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.) If God’ commands were always difficult to understand, then we might be more sceptical of the scriptures. And there are certain commands that, as we explained above, it would be impossible for God to give. If a command is impossible to understand, then that is evidence against divine inspiration. So, the holocaust could not have been commanded by God.

(Some will say that God did command a holocaust in Canaan. Put aside the crude anachronism; if God did order a mass slaughter of children, it would cause serious problems for conservative evangelicals. While it might not cause severe problems for conservative (or “Mere”) Christians, we’re conservative evangelicals at Saints and Sceptics and we need to make some comment. Simply put,  it seems clear to us that there is a fair degree of hyperbole in these texts, and that God is not commanding anything like a genocide.)

Above all, we need to remember that the Bible is not a “how to” guide for every ethical dilemma. We cannot flick through its pages to find a proof text for every decision. To be sure there are absolute commands – lust and adultery are always forbidden, for example. But there is wisdom and advice also – it is better to show mercy than to perform tedious religious rituals. There are characters to emulate – above all Jesus – and narratives to inspire. When we read the Bible our overall aim must be to become the sort of person God wants us to be. We do not read to update our databanks; we read to change who we are. So the message of the Bible needs to be read as a whole and evaluated as a whole. It is irrational to critique the message of the Bible by offering arguments against the inerrancy of a handful of texts. You cannot dodge the scriptural world-view by leaping out of the way of a few passages.


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