Can people be good if God doesn’t exist?

First, a post by Luke Nix defining the term objective morality.

Excerpt:

Let us examine a more recent debate: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris. One of the words that was not clearly defined and accepted by both participants was “objective”. Sam Harris clarified that he was only arguing for a “universal” morality (one that only exists as long as conscious minds exist- he’s referring to humans), while Craig was arguing for morality that exists regardless of whether or not conscious minds exist- he’s also referring to humans. The fact that they were each using different definitions of “objective” caused much confusion for those who did not pick up on the distinction or its significance for the debate (even though Craig pointed out both in his first rebuttal).

Objective morality is binding on us whether we like it or not. An objective moral standard lays out what is right or wrong for us independently of how we feel about that standard. What could ground such a moral standard?

From the Apologetics Guy blog, a simple post explaining the main issue in the debate over morality.

Excerpt:

“Can’t people be good without God?” I mean, couldn’t an atheist do some really good things without God? I guess if we mean “doing the right thing while not believing in God,” then sure. An atheist could do the right thing. For example, they could honestly report their income to the government, be faithful their spouse and so forth. And why not? But maybe the better question is, “Why?” Why even care about being moral?

Think about it like this: If God’s not real, there’s no moral law giver and no such things as objective moral commands. If that’s true, then why not say, “I’ll do the right thing when it makes me feel good or gives me an advantage, and I’ll do the wrong thing when it makes me feel good or gives me an advantage.” Or why not say, “I hereby declare from this day forward that it’s always right to steal.”

If there’s no God and no objective moral standard, there’s no moral difference between abusing someone or taking care of them. Basically, good and evil are reduced to preference. All you could say is, “I don’t like terrorism,” or “I’m not into slavery.” “Human trafficking isn’t my thing.”  But who can really live like this?

If there is no designer of the universe, then there is no design for the universe. If there is no design for the universe, then there is no way that anything ought to be. If there is no way anything ought to be, then there is no way humans ought to be. Any statement about what we “ought” to do in an accidental universe is just someone opinion – you can accept it if you like it, but it’s not real.

Here’s another post by Micah from the Student Apologetics Alliance about the most common objective to the moral argument from objective morality to a moral lawgiver.

Excerpt:

First and foremost though, I want to start off with some background information…namely the Euthyphro Dilemma. This famous dilemma is named after Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. The dilemma here is thus, “Is something good because God commands it? Or, does God command it because that thing is good?” Either way, one runs into problems. If something is good because God commands it, then God could command anything–like rape or murder–and that would be good, and Christians certainly don’t want to advocate that. On the other hand, does God command something because it’s good? If so, then aren’t we appealing to an independent standard of goodness? Is it that God is looking at some moral standard and says, “Oh, I see, that’s a good thing. I’ll command people to do this then…”? We would then have something that sets itself above God, and in fact, this standard would seem to exist even in God’s absence.

Now, the response I and a lot of other Christian thinkers have offer is that there is a third option: namely that something is good because God is good. God is the standard for morality to which all others measure up to. God being good and being moral is essential to His nature. What this implies is that God’s commands are not arbitrary at all, but rather expressions of His nature. What this also implies is that God does not obey moral laws, but rather He is goodness itself. God being good is as natural and essential as humanness is natural to Plato. What this also implies is that without God, we would not have objective moral values and duties incumbent upon us as humans. Sure, we could subjectively make up our own rules, but they wouldn’t be objective or binding. We would not be able to truthfully say, in the absence of God, that rape is objectively wrong regardless if some believe it’s right.

What I’m NOT saying here is that a person needs to believe in God in order for him or her to recognize moral values and vices. One does not need to believe in God in order to know that rape is wrong, but that’s not the argument here. The argument being offered is that without God Himself, objective morality would not exist–morality would not be grounded. The difference lies between two domains: epistemology (how we come to know things; we can come to know certain moral truths without reference to God) and ontology (the nature of being and existing; that such moral truths would need to be grounded in God’s nature in order for them to be binding on everyone).

It’s very important that we all understand what the moral argument is about. It’s about the means of existing of moral value and moral duties. Are they real? Do they really exist somewhere? Or are they just our personal preferences – like clothing fashions and culinary conventions?

15 thoughts on “Can people be good if God doesn’t exist?”

  1. Thank you SO much for this Wintery! This is incredibly timely! I have to prepare a persuasive speech for my public speaking class before next Tuesday, and my topic is ‘Evidence for God’. I was so excited and hardly knew where to begin so I tried to cram in 3 of WLC’s arguments into the 7 minute speech. Not good. I eventually narrowed it down to just objective morality, which is still a huge topic. So this is PERFECT! Thank you thank you thank you! :)

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    1. You’re welcome! I do think you should mention all the arguments in one sentence each and hold up a nice prestigious book from a good academic press (to show them what they could be reading), if you can.

      Oh but do be careful about being too evangelical for a public speaking class… they might grade you down.

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      1. Good advice! I’ll dig around my dad’s books and try to find something nice and prestigious looking.

        Yes, I was worried about that. I wanted to use the Kalam Cosmological argument because it seemed like it would be a little less ‘preachy’ and more logical, if that makes sense. But the moral argument was the safest bet time-wise. Fortunately it’s community college so even though the professor is pretty liberal, the atmosphere is not extremely hostile and most of my peers are at least mildly sympathetic.

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  2. I hate to be a skeptic, but I’m still not entirely convinced by this response to the Euthypro Dilemma.

    How do we know that God is good? What moral standard are we judging God by when we call him ‘good’?

    Surely, it would be possible still for God to command actions such as murder and rape, but because God is good, these actions would be good.

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    1. Jamie B.,
      I think the “moral nature response” to the Euthyphro dilemma can be illustrated by a helpful example. Let’s say someone asked me whether I liked chocolate ice cream. I might answer no. They could then say: “Well, imagine that you did like it. Would that be possible?” I would say “Sure. I could imagine liking chocolate ice cream. I don’t, but it is conceivable.” I can say this because my like or dislike of chocolate ice cream is not essential to my nature.

      Now imagine someone asking me whether I hated my wife. I would answer no. But they could say: “Well, imagine that you did hate her. Would that be possible?” And I would say: “Absolutely not! If ‘I’ hated my wife, ‘I’ would no longer be ‘me’. Loving my wife is absolutely central to my identity. If you change that, you change who I am.”

      In the same way it is simply not possible to say that God could command or approve of evil any more than I could enjoy hating my wife. To do so would be to change God’s essential nature. Whatever entity we had after making this change, it would no longer be God.

      Does that help?
      -Neil

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    2. The Bible makes it clear that God is good and that He can do no wrong and that He cant do evil or be tempted by evil. His commands may seem harsh to us, but for one, we are finite and He is infinite, His ways are higher than ours, and if you were to examine all of Gods attributes, His commands wouldn’t seem so harsh afterwards.

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  3. Jamie B.,
    One answer is given by Thomist Philosopher Ed Feser.

    “Given the doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals, on which being is convertible with goodness, that which is Pure Actuality or Being Itself must ipso facto be Goodness Itself. Given the conception of evil as a privation – that is, as a failure to realize some potentiality – that which is Pure Actuality and therefore in no way potential cannot intelligibly be said to be in any way evil. Given the principle of proportionate causality, whatever good is in the world in a limited way must be in its cause in an eminent way, shorn of any of the imperfections that follow upon being a composite of act and potency. Since God is Pure Actuality, he cannot intelligibly be said either to have or to lack moral virtues or vices of the sort we exhibit when we succeed or fail to realize our various potentials. And so on. All of this is claimed to be a matter of metaphysical demonstration rather than probabilistic empirical theorizing, and the underlying metaphysical ideas form a complex interlocking network that is (as anyone familiar with Platonism or Aristotelianism realizes) motivated independently of the problem of evil or the question of God’s existence.”

    This is from his blog EdwardFeser.blogspot.com . The particular post is “Law’s evil-god challenge”.

    I think you will find a deeper discussion on this issue in Dr. Edward Feser’s book “The Last Superstition”.

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  4. Interesting post.

    I have personally seen plenty of actions that people are good without God and this is supported in the scriptures (Matt 25:31-46)

    In addition, I have personally seen a lot of people who claim to know Christ and act contrary to Christ. Again, this is supported by the scriptures ( Matt 7:21-26)

    The new covenant is ongoing process of the writing of Gods law in our hearts and minds and involves the actual removal of sin from the individual (forgiveness is a component). Salvationis a process and requires constant obedience to Christ and the Holy Spirit (John 15) and endurance race ( he who endures to the end shall be saved NOT who professes Jesus and continues to live in sin).

    It is really of no use to argue with the world – they are going to hate Christians and will crucify us. If they did it to Christ – they will certainly do it anyone who follows Him ( long history of martys to this present hour).

    The lesson to be learned in all this is not to become bitter and hate them but to show a good example and pray for them in in the process hopefully they see their “blindness” we become more Christ like as we work out our own salvation during trials, tribulations, and persecutions.

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    1. Hey, Mike. Good emphasis on true discipleship. While I agree that we shouldn’t quarrel with people, we’ve got to follow the examples of Jesus, Jude, Luke, Peter and Paul, who believed in giving people reasons and evidence. And yes, prayer is a must. Compassion, gentleness, respect, love, and self control are all key elements of being an ambassador of Jesus.

      -Mikel
      Apologetics Guy

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