Theists claim that people could not do good without God. But, people do good things all the time, even without believing in God. Atheists, agnostics and people of all stripes can do good things and they do good things.
Obviously, believing in God is not a prerequisite to doing good things. A better question, is whether good can exist without God?
If God does not exist, what basis exists for determining good or bad? Right or wrong?
Without an objective reference point, we have no way of determining what is up or down, near or far, good or bad. It’s all a matter of perspective, personal opinion or preference if there is no objective standard for morality.
What are the possibilities of objective reference points for morality without God?
The most plausible answer seems to be people, but people don’t agree on much. Just look at your Facebook feed! We all have our own notions of what is good and bad, right and wrong, and we all disagree.
Some people might say that society determines what is good or bad. But which society and in what time period?
We only need to review the laws of the various countries around the world today to see that different countries have very different ideas of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Morality in China, dominated by an atheist, secular regime, looks very different than morality in Saudi Arabia, dominated by a government based on Sharia law.
We in the United Stated tend to think our notions of good and bad, right and wrong, are superior to other countries, but we really don’t even agree on those values in this country. Take a look at your Facebook feed again.
Similar differences are observed in different societies and cultures past and present. Different cultures and different societies demonstrate different values. Even the same societies and cultures demonstrate different values at different times in history.
Slavery in the US was once viewed as acceptable. Abortion was once illegal. Now slavery is abolished and abortion is legal, though people still disagree on whether it is right or wrong. Sexual mores in ancient Rome were very different than sexual mores today in some ways (valuing male dominance) but not in other ways (almost anything goes), but fifty years ago sexual mores in the US were different than they are today, just 50 years later.
Western society, generally, has viewed itself as progressively becoming more civil, more enlightened, as time as gone on. Ancient Greeks thought the same thing. But how do we know that? What is our basis for determining whether we are more enlightened, morally superior, to societies of the past?
Some might say that whoever is in power gets to determine what is right and wrong, and it simply changes over time. But, such a statement concedes that there is no objective morality. Whether a person or a government or a society determines the standards under this view, it is all subjective in the end.
So, maybe that’s it: maybe there is no objective morality!?
Atheists like Richard Dawkins actually agree with that statement. Dawkins says that only “blind pitiless indifference” can exist in a world that is limited to natural causes and explanations.
Yet, even Richard Dawkins acts as if objective morality exists. He gives the lack of objective morality lip service, but he betrays his thinking in books like The God Delusion where he makes moral claims, like religion is bad and atheism is good. He even proposes a list of “the atheist ten commandments”.
All people of good will agree that Hitler was wrong, that he was evil. All people would agree that raping a child is bad. In fact, nearly everyone but a sociopath acts as if anobjective moral standard exists, though we may not all agree on the details.
Any time people protest about fairness or justice they are acting as if morality is objective and universal and that people ought to recognize it. Even atheists, like Richard Dawkins, act this way (though they deny the very basis of objective morality and, therefore, deny that objective morality exists).
Without God, however, no objective reference point exists to ground morality. As Dostoevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” All we are left with is someone’s viewpoint, which is no more valuable than someone else’s viewpoint.
Even if we reference societies and cultures and governments, the viewpoints on morality change with each society, culture and government, and viewpoints on morality change within every society, culture and government over time. No objective basis to judge people, societies, cultures or governments without God.
The world religions claim that a God or gods do exist, and that God (or gods) establish the standards by which everything in the world can be judged. The world religions, of course, agree on some things, but do not agree on everything. Whether people understand or agree on the details of the standard, however, is not the issue; if God exists, God is the standard of morality. Though our understanding of that standard of morality may be incomplete or inaccurate, our failings do not negate the standard.
The fact that some universal standard exists that can even be observed to some primitive extent in the animal world, though we may only know it and understand it incompletely, suggests a moral stand bearer.
The Judeo-Christian concept of God includes commandments that reveal a moral standard that is rooted in the characteristics of God. For instance, God’s attribute of love is revealed in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
This command to love your neighbor provides a foundation on which we can affirm the objective goodness of things like generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice and equality. It also affirms the objective evil of things like greed, abuse and discrimination. The command to do unto others as you would have them to unto you describes what is objectively good and objectively bad.
As a side note, good is not good because God has determined it to be good. God also does not will things because they are good. These seemingly competing possibilities are known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and they pose a false dichotomy. Neither is true. Rather, God is the reference point! God is good. Good is good because good is defined by God’s nature.
God is the standard for morality just as high fidelity is the standard for a musical recording. The more a recording sounds like the original, the “better” (more true to the original) it is. The standard is the live performance. High fidelity means the standard of the original performance to which the recording is compared.
In a similar way, the more closely an action conforms to God’s nature, the better it is.
If atheism is true, there is no ultimate standard of good. For atheists, humans are just accidents of nature, justly highly evolved animals. Animals have no moral obligations to one another, though we often project morality onto them. When a cat kills a mouse, the cat hasn’t done anything morally wrong; the cat is just being a cat.
It’s telling that we don’t view ourselves that way. We all believe that killing a fellow human being is wrong. We don’t say that we are just being human. Ironically, many people suggest that killing is aberrant human behavior, but then why is killing so prevalent, even today?
If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behavior the same way as animals. When Pol Pot killed millions of intellectuals or the terrorists fly planes into the Twin Towers, they were not acting immorally on a naturalistic, atheistic view. According to people like Dawkins, they were merely “dancing to their DNA“. But no one sees things that way.
Good and bad, right and wrong do exist. All but the sociopaths among us agree. We all act as if morality is an objective standard. Just as our sensory experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real.
Every time we react, “Hey! That’s not fair! That’s not right!” we affirm our belief in objective morality.
We may disagree about the details of moral goodness, but not because God doesn’t exist. We disagree because we use ourselves, our experiences, our culture and other things as our reference points. Our reference points are all slightly different, so we have differences in what we consider to be morally good.
If we could know the mind of God, we would have no disagreement over what is good or bad, right or wrong.
Morality is not just personal preference or opinion. According to Michael Ruse, a Philosopher of Science at Florida State University, and an atheist, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5.”
In the end, the fact that objective morality exists is proof that God exists. If a Supreme Being did not exist who sets the standard of what is good and bad, right and wrong, no objective morality would exist. The fact that we all agree in our experience that objective morality does exist suggests that God exists.
Atheism does not provide a solid basis for the reality that all of us experience every day. The existence of objective morality that suggests the existence of God.