I have to admit, this is one of my favorite arguments for the existence of God. I employ it in many of my writings because it’s tremendously relatable to our everyday life. Everyone seems to inherently filter their decisions through an absolute moral paradigm. It’s easily recognizable that raping, torturing, and murdering are morally condemnable under all circumstances. There seemingly exists an absolute moral standard by which we can recognize whether an action is good or bad. We all affirm these moral absolutes, especially when asked an extraordinary question like “is torturing babies for fun a morally good thing to do?” Would anyone of sound mind answer ‘yes’ to that question? I’ve never encountered an individual who would answer in such a way but if they did, I would highly suspect that they were lying.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity about how the existence of moral absolutes had a meaningful impact on his life in his search for God,
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? 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?”
Lewis insightfully analogized objective morality with a ‘line’. Absolute morality cannot be absolute without a transcendent unchanging external standard by which we can measure all moral actions. This fact is what makes the moral argument so compelling. Below I will go over each premise of the moral argument along with some details of competing naturalistic approaches, and describe how each premise is valid, therefore logically following that the conclusion is inescapably true.
Premise One: If God Does Not Exist, Objective Moral Values and Duties Do Not Exist
From my experience, this is a highly debated premise (even among atheists). Many in the secular humanist community reject this premise because they feel that a convincing case can be made for objective moral values and duties in the absence of God. One of the most prominent of these voices is Sam Harris. Harris has been a vehemently vocal critic of religion, particularly Christianity. His particular position for objective morality is grounded in the measurement of overall ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’ for the greatest amount of people. A couple quick examples would be to evaluate the amount of ‘flourishing’ and ‘wellbeing’ that resulted from organizing a government in a particular way, raising children in a particular manner, and contributing to certain charities. In Harris’ approach, assessments of these actions and the conclusions concerning the ‘flourishing’ and ‘wellbeing’ that result is the basis for determining whether something is objectively moral. However, there is a problem with the ‘human flourishing’ approach to objective morality.
Each individual is a subject in this experiment. Meaning, what reason does anyone have to believe (under the secular humanist view) that their actions are objectively moral or immoral? Given that a transcendent standard of moral absolutes would not exist, who would be the judge of determining whether an action added to human flourishing or detracted from it? Is there an absolute standard for human flourishing or is it merely subjective? If there is an absolute standard for human flourishing, how is it ontologically grounded? If it’s not ontologically grounded (i.e. subjective), how would anyone have any obligations to fulfill any moral duties? At the end of the day, this approach is confusing epistemology with ontology. It’s doing its best to try to describe how we discern moral actions are right/wrong while omitting how we know that an objective moral standard exists. These widely held moral philosophies of the secular humanists fail to refute premise one because they do not account for how objective moral values and duties would have an ontological basis.
What they’re missing, or side-stepping around, is that their approach to morality is ultimately subjective. Under this view, individuals have no absolute basis to refer to when making a moral judgment. What if the Nazi’s killed everyone who disagreed with them and brainwashed the entire world into thinking that their murderous actions towards the Jews resulted in their continued flourishing? If twenty million people are murdered so presumably the remaining portion of the world’s population may flourish, who is the judge of whether this example of murder is objectively morally wrong? Hitler believed the Nazis would flourish better in a world with no Jews and the Jews felt they would flourish better with no Nazis. Clearly they both can’t be right in an objective sense, but in a subjective sense they can both maintain what they think would be best for their own respective flourishing. This approach boils down to a subjective view of morality because it lacks an objective standard. No absolute moral descriptions can be made under this view.
Some atheists are totally loyal to their worldview (unlike Sam Harris) and honestly deny the existence of moral absolutes. They see morality as being a convenient illusion that helps us survive in society but is not objectively binding in any way. They affirm the first premise of the moral argument despite what the secular humanist might say. For instance, Richard Dawkins describes this very fact in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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. . . . DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (p. 133)
Atheist William Provine, a scholar of the history of evolutionary biology at Cornell University, said in a debate with Philip Johnson,
“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either”
Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse wrote in Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory” (pp. 262-269)
These are men who have acknowledged the logical consequences of the atheistic worldview. Regardless of whether or not they like the idea of living in a universe with no objective moral values and duties, they have honestly conceded that it is a fact under an atheistic worldview. Premise two claims that objective moral values and duties exist, which would conflict with the honest atheistic position on this matter. We’ll explore that next.
Premise Two: Objective Moral Values and Duties Do Exist
This is where the secular humanist encounters difficulty. They acknowledge the existence of objective moral values and duties but they lack the worldview that can ontologically make sense of this reality. So, they have developed the ‘flourishing’ argument that I discussed above in order to make it seem like God is unnecessary for morality to be considered objective. As we’ve already seen, there is no possible way to ground objective morality without having an objective source. Hence, all moral descriptions on their approach would ultimately be subjective. While hard-atheists have accepted (sometimes reluctantly) the reality that objective moral values and duties do not exist, this is a curiously morbid position for any human to honestly uphold and live out.
A large majority of people acknowledge that certain things are objectively right and wrong. For example, is raping, torturing, and murdering newborns for pleasure a morally acceptable thing to do? If someone abducted your ten year old daughter and molested her, would you find it objectively morally repulsive? For those who affirm that objective morality does not exist, they are also committed to affirming that none of the actions I listed above are morally wrong in an objective sense. Nobody could be held morally accountable for their actions because each wrongdoer has their own subjective standard of morality that is different from everyone else’s; and who is to say they are wrong!
Obviously nobody truly believes this. We all grimace when we hear about moral atrocities all around the world. Witnessing, even from afar, atrocious acts of injustice cues our hearts to recognize that certain actions are definitively wrong. Our experience reveals that morality is absolute rather than merely subjective. We know there is an objective difference between Hitler and Mother Teresa because we recognize that evil and good are two objectively different things. If there is a difficulty grasping this concept, I’d encourage you to walk through the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
When we accept that objective moral values and duties exist, we openly recognize that there is an absolute standard of morality. If the standard was subjective to each individual person, then it wouldn’t be absolute. We don’t live as though murder, rape, and torture are only wrong for those that think those actions are wrong. We live as though those actions are wrong for everyone because we acknowledge an absolute standard that identifies them as objectively wrong universally.
Premise Three: Therefore, God Exists
Without God, as some atheists have freely and candidly conceded, morality would not exist. Since we easily and innately recognize the undeniable difference between good and evil in our daily lives, we can confidently assert that God is the only foundation for an absolute moral law. Just as C.S. Lewis rightly said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” We cannot say something is bad unless we know what good is just like we cannot know darkness without knowing what light is. Morality is grounded in God’s nature, which is the reason why morality is absolute. Since we observe the existence of objective morals in our lives, it stands to reason that the moral law that was written on our hearts was authored by God.
What makes this deductive argument so powerful is that every honest truth-seeking individual (of sound mind) can acknowledge the truth of its premises. There is an objective difference between right and wrong. Our experiences tell us this. This experiential truth leads us to the inescapable conclusion that God must exist if there is such a thing as moral absolutes. Even when we experience or witness moral evils, we nonetheless know that the evil we are experiencing or witnessing is objectively evil and not merely subjectively evil. In a sense, the existence of evil affirms the existence of God because we would never be able to acknowledge evil if it was not for the absolute moral standard that is grounded in the nature of God.
The moral argument also speaks very loudly in an environment of science worship. This is a metaphysical argument that is not contingent upon the findings of the scientific method. The scientific method is completely impotent when it comes to identifying objective morality. An all-encompassing reliance on science for all knowledge ultimately fails because science cannot account for all truth (that’s a topic for another day).
We can be confident that an absolute standard of morality exists, which ultimately illustrates the existence of God (i.e. moral law-giver). This practical argument resonates with us, as fallen individuals, more than many other arguments because the rejection of it has implications that are far too extreme for any rational person to embrace. I don’t know anyone that truly and honestly embraces moral nihilism. The philosophical implications of moral nihilism would be unimaginable. That is why the moral argument is extremely persuasive from an experiential and philosophical point of view. While secular humanists try to work around the argument, sometimes creatively, they ultimately cannot justify their Godless position and make sense of morality. The Apostle Paul wrote that God has written the moral law on our hearts in Romans 2:14-15,
14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
God has imbedded a mechanism within each and every one of us that is instinctively tuned in to the transcendent moral standard found only within Him. The existence of the moral law written on our hearts begins to make sense out of how everyone acknowledges the difference between moral good and evil. Ultimately, that is why this argument is so powerful with so many people. To deny it is to accept moral nihilism. To try to account for this metaphysical truth with the scientific method is wrongheaded. An honest search inside our own hearts will lead us to the conclusion that God is the only adequate explanation that makes the most sense of our experiential acknowledgement of objective moral values and duties.