Can atheists help themselves to objective morality on atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Here’s Dr. William Lane Craig explaining why you can’t:

He presents 3 reasons why in the video, all of which are also discussed in his Defenders class:

The mention of Plato brings to mind another possible atheistic response to the first premise of the moral argument that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. Plato thought that the Good just exists as a sort of self-subsistent idea, as an entity in and of itself. Indeed, it is the most real thing in reality. The Good simply exists. If you find this difficult to grasp, join the company! Nevertheless, that is what Plato believed. Later Christian thinkers, like Augustine, equated Plato’s Good with the nature of God. God’s nature is the Good, and so it was anchored in a concrete object, namely, God. But for Plato, at least, the Good just sort of existed on its own as a kind of self-existent idea.

Some atheists might say that moral values, like Justice, Mercy, Love, and Forbearance, just exist all on their own as sort of abstract moral objects. They have no other foundation; they just exist. We can call this view Atheistic Moral Platonism. According to this view, moral values are not grounded in God. They just exist all on their own.

Unintelligibility of Atheistic Moral Platonism

What might we say by way of response to Atheistic Moral Platonism? Let me make three responses. First, it seems to me that this view is just unintelligible. I simply don’t understand what it means. What does it mean, for example, to say that the moral value Justice just exists? I understand what it means to say that a person is just or that some action is just, but what does it even mean to say that in the absence of any persons or any objects at all, that Justice just exists? It is hard to understand even what this means. Moral values seem to be properties of persons, and so it is hard to understand how Justice can just exist as a sort of abstraction.

Lack of Moral Obligation on Atheistic Moral Platonism

Secondly, a major weakness of this view is that it provides no basis for objective moral duties. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that moral values like Justice, Love, Forbearance, and Tolerance just exist on their own. Why would that lay any sort of moral obligation upon me? Why would the existence of this realm of ideas make it my duty to be, say, merciful or loving? Who or what lays such an obligation upon me? Why would I have the moral duty to be merciful or loving? Notice that on this view moral vices like Greed, Hatred, and Selfishness presumably also exist as abstractions. In the absence of any moral law giver, what obligates me to align my life with one set of these abstract ideas rather than with some other set of abstract ideas? There just doesn’t seem to be any basis at all for moral duty in this view. In the absence of a moral law giver, Atheistic Moral Platonism lacks any basis for moral obligation.

Improbability of Atheistic Moral Platonism

Finally, thirdly, it is fantastically improbable that the blind evolutionary process should spit forth exactly those kinds of creatures that align with the existence of this realm of abstract values.1 Remember that they have no relationship with each other at all. The natural realm and this abstract moral realm are completely separate. And yet, lo and behold, the natural realm has by chance alone evolved exactly those kind of creatures whose lives align with these moral duties and values. This seems to be an incredible coincidence when you think about it. It is almost as if the moral realm knew that we were coming! I think it is a far more plausible view to say that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the sovereignty of a divine being, who is both the creator of natural laws that govern the physical universe and whose commands constitute the moral laws that govern our ethical duties. This is a more coherent view of reality. Theism is a more coherent view because these two realms of reality don’t fall apart in this disjointed way. They are both under the sovereignty of a single natural and moral law giver.

For those three reasons, Atheistic Moral Platonism is a less plausible view than theistic based ethics such as I have been defending.

And now, I must be mean to the atheists, because I think this me too nonsense is just ridiculous, desperate intellectual dishonesty.

I remember having a conversation with one of my IT project managers who was an atheist, and she asked me what I thought would happen to dogs when they died. I said “well they don’t have an afterlife so they just rot away when we bury them and get eaten by worms”. She was aghast and said “no they don’t, they go to Heaven”. That was just her wishful thinking, there. And that’s what morality on atheism is: wishful thinking. It’s just an appearance package that gets bolted on absolute meaninglessness and hedonism. And even if the atheist tries to make traditional decisions in their own lives, they typically push for full-on dismantling of Judeo-Christian values, especially in the sexual realm. And that spills over into abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and government restraints on free speech, conscience and religious liberty.

Dear atheists: you cannot duct tape morality onto nihilism and have it be rational. We know you’re doing it to feel good about yourselves and to appear normal instead of wearing your nihilism openly. But your faked morality is not even close to the morality of theists, and especially not of Christian theists. Christians go against their self-interest because we imitate the self-sacrificial love of Christ, who gave himself as a ransom to save others. That makes no sense on an atheistic worldview, since this life is all you have, and there is no afterlife where your actions are in the context of a relationship with that self-sacrificial Son of God. In any case, free will doesn’t exist on atheism, so that means no moral choices regardless. These are the common sense implications of atheist first principles, and in fact that’s what you hear expressed from the finest atheist scholars: no free will, no right and wrong, no life after death.

If you want to see what atheists really think about morality, then take a look at this post featuring Matt Dillahunty, where he is asked to condemn the Holocaust as objectively wrong, and he refuses to do it. That’s intellectually consistent atheist morality right there. If the universe is an accident, and human beings evolved by accident, then there is way things ought to be, and no way we ought to act. And no one is there is no ongoing two-way relationship for our conduct to be part of, anyway. On atheism, human beings will die out individually and collectively in the heat death of the universe. Once the heat death of the universe arrives, there will be no one left to care how we lived after we’re dead – there is no one waiting for us who cares how we act towards him and towards others. Atheists can arbitrarily put any limits they want on their actions, based on what makes them feel good, and what makes people like them, perhaps taking account the arbitrary customs and conventions of the time and place they find themselves in. But it’s delusional and irrational make-believe for atheists to claim that morality is rational on their worldview.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

20 thoughts on “Can atheists help themselves to objective morality on atheism?”

  1. “What does it mean, for example, to say that the moral value Justice just exists?”

    Why is it any more meaningful to say ‘God’s nature is the Good’. What content does that actually have? What makes His nature ‘Good’. What does it even MEAN to say it is the ‘Good’ if ‘Goodness’ has no meaning outside of reference to His nature?

    “I remember having a conversation with one of my IT project managers who was an atheist, and she asked me what I thought would happen to dogs when they died. I said “well they don’t have an afterlife so they just rot away when we bury them and get eaten by worms”. She was aghast and said “no they don’t, they go to Heaven”. ”

    It doesn’t sound like she was actually an atheist if she believed in heaven.

    “Matt Dillahunty is asked to condemn the Holocaust as objectively wrong, and he refuses to do it”

    That doesn’t seem accurate. According to the link you provide, Matt says the Holocaust is ‘obviously bad’.

    “Remember that they have no relationship with each other at all. The natural realm and this abstract moral realm are completely separate.”

    Not really. If immoral acts are harmful ones then one would expect evolution (which is NOT a chance process) to produce social creatures that have strong instincts against harmful acts. After all, a social species that had no taboos against murdering infants would have a smaller chance of survival than a species that did.

    1. Just to be clear here, atheists cannot rationally ground objective morality. In a materialistic universe that exists only because of random chance, there are no creatures with free will, no objective way those creatures ought to act, no meaning or purpose in life, no judgment based on morality / immorality after death. Atheists talk about morality the same way they talk about what clothes they like or what food they like. It’s personal preferences.

      When theists talk about morality, we mean that human beings have free will to make moral choices, they have consciences that reflect an objective moral standard, there is an objective way that humans ought to behave, and there is judgment after death for moral decisions. None of these things exist on atheism. Theists are capable of condemning slavery as wrong, atheists are not. If atheists existed in a time of slavery, they would have no way of saying that slavery was wrong, since there is no objective standard that applies to all humans, across all times and places, on atheism.

      Regarding Dillahunty:

      Robertson (to Dillahunty): Is it a fact that Dachau (a concentration camp) was morally wrong?

      Dillahunty: (literally, not a paraphrase) I DON’T KNOW

      Morality is nonsense to an atheist. That’s why Dillahunty cannot say that Dachau, a concentration camp, is morally wrong as a matter of fact. There are no moral facts on atheism, merely opinions. And that’s the way they like it. That’s the whole point of being an atheist – to get out of having to care about prescriptive morality, so you are free to pursue fun and thrills without feeling guilty or being judged. Atheists use moral language so that they don’t look like sociopaths to other people, but they aren’t talking about anything other than their own feelings, or perhaps cultural conventions that vary over different times and places. It certainly possible for an atheist to mimic moral behavior when they fear peer disapproval, the same way that parrots can be taught to repeat words that they don’t understand, but that’s a far cry from self-sacrificial dedication to objective moral laws that goes against self-interest.

      1. Well I’ll have to agree to disagree with you on all those points, Wintery Knight!

        A strictly deterministic ‘clockwork’ universe is by definition not operating on ‘random chance’. If humans evolved then that again isn’t random chance – evolution isn’t a random process.

        Your reply states several times that morality makes no sense in atheism, but you offer no response to my critique of attempts to get objective morality under a theistic framework either. What does ‘good’ actually mean in the phrase ‘God’s nature is good’? You can ask what makes the Holocaust wrong under atheism, but how does a God affect the question?

        If ‘the Holocaust was objectively wrong’ means anything then it means it would be wrong with or without a God, or you’re making its ‘wrongness’ contingent on something else.

        Re: Dillahunty, I’ve heard him specifically say he believes slavery, the holocaust and many other things are objectively wrong. I’ve not checked over the video you reference, so perhaps it’s old, but he certainly doesn’t take that stance now. Google ‘The superiority of secular morality’ and you can find him explaining how he justifies this stance in a lecture he presents.

        I’m glad you are a ‘Wilberforce’ Christian who opposes slavery – the principal defence of slavery for a century or so was scripture. Many abolitionists may have cited scripture too, but nonetheless abolitionism was dismissed by many religious figures as an ‘atheist philosophy’. Certainly one can find plenty of verses defending the owning of a person by another person, and indeed owning their children too (ie, we’re not just talking about indentured servitude).

        Regarding free will, you’ve not explained how the existence of a deity would make any difference to whether free will exists or not. We have brains that appear to obey the laws of physics. What difference would adding a supernatural element make? Freeing our brains from cause and effect doesn’t add free will, it adds either randomness or chaos.

        Further, if every choice you make is known in advance by God, then it is quite literally true that you cannot possibly make ANY choices differently to the ones he knows you’ll make. If that makes no difference to your free will then equally it follows that determinism doesn’t affect a person’s ability to make a free choice either.

        1. I mean that the creation of the universe is not purposeful on atheism. On atheism, it just popped into being uncaused out of nothing by the power of nothing. Worse than magicians bringing rabbits out of a hat – because at least there you have the magician and the hat to explain the rabbit.

          God is a designer of the universe, and as a result he has the authority to expect that free creatures comply with his design. That’s where our moral oughts come from, his role as designer of us, of everything. In a purposeless atheist universe, there is not designer, no design, no way we ought to be objectively. As I said, this is a feature, not a bug, of the atheistic worldview (to atheists). This is what they want to be true.

          Atheists Michael Ruse says atheists have no objective moral standards:

          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.(Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

          Atheist Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

          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, or any justice. The universe that 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. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

          Couple of examples, there.

          The point is that on atheism, slavery isn’t objectively wrong, because there are no objective moral standards that exist. Atheists can’t condemn anything as morally wrong, nor praise anything as moral good. If they punt to Platonic realm, then there are two questions: how did those Platonic values come to exist, and 2) why should we care about them, since we don’t have free will and there’s no afterlife. All atheists think that slavery is right or wrong like anything else is right or wrong – different communities in different times and places decide what to make of slavery based on feelings and conventions. When I say slavery is wrong, I mean it’s really wrong. When an atheist says it he means “in this society, in this time and place, I don’t like slavery – yuck!” But personal preference is a clown view of morality, it misses the point entirely. It’s just parrots pretending to understand English by mimicing the people who actually know what English is. Morality is meaningless on atheism – you use the words to talk about something that is illusory – on your own view, it’s illusory. Literally make-believe.

          Dillahunty has expressed opinions, but these are his personal preferences. When he was pressed in a debate situation to make a statement about what was right and wrong objectively, he choked. That’s because he is smart enough to know what any admission of objective morality is incompatible with atheism. Also, as an atheist, his main purpose in embracing atheism is exactly to jettison morality. So of course he doesn’t think that morality exists. He has figured out how to express the right personal preferences in a Judeo-Christian culture, but we can see what atheists are doing in North Korea just fine, when no one is there to challenge them. Closer to home, we can look at Richard Carrier’s infidelity to get what’s really going on. This isn’t rocket science for those who have unclouded vision.

          Regarding free will, on atheism, there is none. On theism, we have non-material souls piloting physical bodies. The free will is in the soul.

          Regarding foreknowledge and free will, God’s foreknowing what I will freely do does not determine it, any more than your foreknowing that I will choose ice cream over fried liver causes me to prefer the ice cream. God foreknows what you will freely choose. If you chose different, he would foreknow that. But again, on atheism, everything single thing is determined, and there is no free will, no moral choices. Another defeat for atheists desperately trying to be included in the morality game. Sorry, atheists, you can’t play with us.

          So across the board, we can see that atheism cannot make sense of: objective moral value, objective moral duties, free will, moral accountability, moral significance, etc. Why are you even talking about morality, get on with the business of having fun! Never mind logic, reason and evidence. Dwelling on these things take you farther from where you are trying to go. Less reflection, more abortion. Right? Don’t make me have to remind you how to be a consistent atheist. Survival of the fittest ring a bell?

          1. “God is a designer of the universe, and as a result he has the authority to expect that free creatures comply with his design. ”

            Is that a rule – that designers have authority to expect sentient beings to comply with their designs? Now either:
            1) You’re saying that’s a rule that God created – in which you’re saying he gave himself the authority to have the authority (a circular argument) or
            2) You’re saying that rule exists separately from God – in other words it’s one of those platonic things. And as you say – ‘how did that platonic ideal come to exist’?

            Is loving a trait of God because it’s good, or is it good because it’s a trait of God? You seem to choose the latter, but where did these traits come from? Why ‘loving’ and not ‘hating’? Was that just chance? William Lane Craig himself argues that ‘loving’ is necessarily a ‘great-making property’. But he can’t maintain this claim without it being a platonic ideal, separate from God.

            Your argument that your every choice and move being known in advance by God – such that you literally cannot choose differently – doesn’t affect your free will is no different to saying that a choice in a naturalistic universe can still be free.

            I’ve seen many debates with Dilahunty when he states unequivocally that X or Y is wrong, and explains why. They’re all easily found on YouTube. And like I said, there are long lectures where he explains it in detail.

            Pointing out Richard Carrier’s infidelity carries no more weight than pointing out how many evangelists or ‘men of God’ have had to admit to ‘moments of weakness’. If only atheists were cheating I’d get your point, but sadly it’s very prevalent among theists too.

  2. By the way, anyone interested in the subject of morality under theistic and atheistic frameworks should read Jeremy Koons’ philosophy paper on the subject, which left William Lane Craig himself effectively admitting that ‘God is good’ has no real meaning. God’s goodness, in short, is unintelligible unless one accepts the very same, separate from God, platonic ‘goodness’ that Craig and you reject.
    The paper can be found here:

    It’s 19 or so pages, but well worth a read.

    1. Craig stuff:

      On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the “Good.” He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth.

      Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.


      1. None of what Craig says in the quote you supply addresses Koons’ argument. Craig HAS responded to Koons’ paper on his website, but even there he offers no decent refutation. Have you read Koons’ paper?

          1. Give it a go. It’s not hard to understand. It’s written in the same language as your own posts, which after all make philosophical arguments.

    1. Jeffery Jay Lowder, the night that Washington legalized same-sex marriage:

      Washington State’s new law allowing same-sex marriages has gone into effect!
      I’m proud of my state tonight.

      Really, Jeff? What are you so proud of? Tell us what atheist morality really means?


      Atheist morality: “I’ll use the state to silence, coerce and destroy anyone who says that my personal self-centered rebellion against the objective moral law is wrong”.

      It means shutting down Christian adoption agencies, Christian-owned businesses, fining Christians, firing Christians, indoctrinating children against chastity and traditional marriage in the schools, redistributing wealth to incentivize single motherhood, and forcing Christian nurses and doctors to perform abortions or lose their jobs. Abortion through all 9 months of pregnancy for children who are the wrong color or the wrong sex. Because the strong ought to be able to kill the weak when the weak become inconvenient to them. Survival of the fittest.

      Over 58 million abortions:

      Atheist morality, indeed.

      Let me know when atheists promote pre-marital chastity, marital fidelity and natural marriage over and against adult selfishness and hedonism as a matter of law and policy. It seems to me that at a minimum, morality would require adults to exercise self-control and self-denial so that children get the marital stability they need, and ongoing relationships with the two parents who created them deliberately, in order to love them and sacrifice their self-interest for them. That’s what needs to be promoted in law and policy. Even one girl asking where her mother is or one boy asking where his father is is too much for me, and I am willing to push for the rights of children to live and have authority over the selfishness of their two biological parents in law and policy.

      1. Holy fallacious objection, Batman!

        Let’s review the exchange so far:

        1. WK claims that atheists cannot help themselves to objective morality. In support, he links to a YouTube video by WLC and then summarizes WLC’s three objections to what WLC calls ‘atheistic moral Platonism’:
        (i) ‘The Unintelligibility of Atheistic Moral Platonism’
        (ii) ‘Lack of Moral Obligation on Atheistic Moral Platonism’
        (iii) ‘Improbability of Atheistic Moral Platonism’

        2. JJL posts a link to his own YouTube video refuting WLC’s moral argument, including these three objections.

        3. WK responds, not by directly engaging anything JJL actually said in his video, but by quoting something JJL wrote about same-sex marriage (SSM). I realize that the topic may be red meat on a Christian website with a primarily Christian audience — indeed, this may be an instance of the ‘poisoning the well’ fallacy — but it’s a logically fallacious response. And so, as interesting as the topic of SSM may be, I’m not going to take the bait. Instead, I’m going to focus on the plausibility of objective morality on atheism.

        Indeed, JJL’s views on same-sex marriage are as irrelevant to the plausibility of ‘objective morality on atheism’ as atheistic objections to Biblical morality are irrelevant to WLC’s moral argument for theism. Both WK’s same-sex marriage objection (to JJL’s defense of objective morality on atheism) and the atheistic objection from alleged instances of Biblical immorality (to WLC’s moral argument) are instances of a type of objection which, to my knowledge, has never been given a formal name. I propose we call such objections this: “objections from undesirable normative ethical consequences.”

        The problem with both theistic and atheistic objections from undesirable normative ethical consequences is that they confuse metaethics with normative ethics. As I explain in my Primer on Religion and Morality, (see here — skip down to page 7), metaethics is the study of the nature of status of normative ethical claims, beliefs, and theories. In contrast, normative ethics is study of what is morally good or bad, what is morally right or wrong, what morally ought or ought not to be done, and so forth.

        The upshot is this. Even if, for the sake of argument, the Bible did or does contain immoral divine commands, that would simply tell us that the Bible had or has the wrong normative ethics. That wouldn’t tell us anything about whether morality is objective or, if it is, whether it is a supernatural foundation.

        Similarly, even if, for the sake of argument, JJL has the wrong views on same-sex marriage, that would simply tell us that JJL had or has the wrong normative ethics. That wouldn’t tell us anything about whether whether JJL’s objections to WLC’s argument are successful or, more broadly, whether objective morality is plausible on atheism.

        1. Great response, JLL. It’s a common mistake of non-counter-apologists such as Dawkins and C Hitchens to make the error you identify when arguing against WL Craig. Then all WLC has to do is point out that his argument is completely unaffected by any problems in the bible. He doesn’t say morals come from the bible – he says they come from God.

          Did you listen to the final Reasonable Doubts podcast when they discussed Craig’s reaction to Jeremy Koons’ paper on objective morality?

          1. Andrew: Thank you. Yes, I did listen to that Reasonable Doubts podcast. WLC’s rebuttal to Koons was very weak. I was tempted to write a blog post critiquing it, but decided to spend my time on other things (which, sadly, had nothing to do with blogging at all).

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