Can atheists rationally ground objective moral values and duties?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Here’s Dr. William Lane Craig explaining why atheists can’t help themselves to objective morality, given a worldview of atheism:

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 on your view of atheism, they don’t have an afterlife, so they just rot away when we bury them and they 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 onto 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 no 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

22 thoughts on “Can atheists rationally ground objective moral values and duties?”

  1. You probably know what my answer is going to be… ;) But I’ll bring up the point that many different cultures all have similar moral prohibitions such as murder and theft. The exact circumstances that these fall under may vary, but the concepts are pretty much the same. Morality and moral codes had to evolve when humans decided to live in more complex social groups so they couldn’t be too self serving and destroy their group and their own chances for survival. Atheists and non-Christians of various faiths do indeed have moral codes they ground in their own reasons. My question is, why does the Judaeo-Christian God posses the “one and only” answer to moral questions for humanity aside from every other belief system on the planet? Aside from simply stating because my god exists and yours doesn’t, or “because God said so”…


    1. The Judeo-Christian God gets to decide what is binding on his creatures, because he makes the entire universe, and he makes the creatures. It’s like the inventor of a sport deciding the rules, because he invents the sport. Although in this case, the inventor also makes the field and marks the lines on the field, and he decides what counts as scoring and what doesn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In the Christian worldview though, but what about those of different religions? Do they not have an objective morality of thier own? Is there any reason why your god gets the title of supreme moral arbiter over those who believe their gods do with equal sincerity? Or are we to simply dismiss everyone else since we have the “right beliefs” ? Again, not pointed at you wintry knight, but since you brought it up ….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well it depends which religion is true. But yes, if other religions like Islam have a Creator / Designer of the universe, then they could decide. If there’s a designer of the universe in any worldview, then that designer could decide how his creatures ought to live. Just like the designer of the game and the Creator of the sports field could decide how the people ought to play.

          Some religions won’t have a designer, though, like Theravada Buddhism.

          Liked by 3 people

    2. You are referring to natural law, and you are correct that all of us have that law as a backdrop to our conscience. We do not all obey it, and many of our consciences are severely damaged, but we all have it – it is the reason I tried my best (but failed) to not cuss in front of my children, especially when they were growing up – and I was an atheist then. Why is cussing in front of my children – or beating them or aborting them – wrong on atheism?
      Catholic doctrine talks a lot about natural law, but one place you will find it referred to in the Bible is:
      “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.” – Romans 2:15
      So, yes, we ALL know that paying somebody to kill our children (inside or outside of the womb) is wrong. That is why if you walk into almost any abortion mill waiting room, you will find women who either are crying or have been crying. They all know, on some level, that it is wrong. But they still do it.
      You do not see that phenomenon in the waiting rooms of real medical practitioners. EVERYONE knows that killing an innocent child is wrong, but many of us suppress that knowledge.
      That is why the big move now is to “shout your abortion.” The abortion industry is desperately trying to de-stigmatize paying somebody to kill your innocent defenseless child in the womb. That is the one area that industry has failed – abortion stigma remains, and the louder some women shout it, the more obvious a fail it becomes. Natural law.
      On theism, they also know that they SHOULD not do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think she was asking if Christian theism is the only worldvirw that could potentially ground objective morality, so I said no it isn’t the only one, any worldview with a Creator and Designer could do it.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Most atheists pick the moral rules they want or accept and toss out those that are inconvenient to them. Then they often make knew rules and are as judgemental or more about their rules than the Christian rules they despise.


        1. I always like reading what she says. She doesn’t post as much as many others, but what she has is quality and well reasoned.

          Very good points in that tweet

          Liked by 1 person

    4. Lady of Reason,
      Just to point out – perhaps you already know – that your point, before your questioning of the special status of Judaeo-Christian theism, asserting the ubiquity of what is called Natural Law, aligns with the appendix to CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, where he calls Natural Law
      The Tao.
      My reading of Lewis is that for him Natural Law is a pillar of support for theism; Christianity requires an additional step. Whether neo-Darwinian evolution by natural selection and random genome changes suffices to explain Natural Law is worthy of discussion. It should not be taken as axiomatic, without stating that doing so is an item of faith.


    1. Because the material world is all that exists on atheism. They are naturalists. Everything that exists is made of matter. Material objects don’t have free will. You can look at atheists like Sam Harris and Peter Atkins and Will Provine for more on that.


  2. A question a individual should consider is whether they believe “God” exists or not is this one: “If God exists would I be willing to obey Him/Her or just do my own thing in life?”

    That’s a question we all answer in life whether we believe in God or not.


    One thing I know from my “personal experience” and others don’t have to listen or believe it but it’s this: if you just “ask aloud” ‘Are you real God?’ I can guarantee you on my life you’ll get an answer if not *answers* from Him *if you will accept the answer(s) as such*.

    If you think I’m “bluffing” please try this challenge out *for real* (not “playing around) I can GUARANTEE you God will let you know if He is real or not.

    The irony is it’s on YOU if you don’t accept His Evidence or not.

    Try it out only if you’re serious.

    ~ Bro. Jed


      1. Yes, the problem is that most atheists are presumptive on anti-supernaturalism, so they will find all sorts of natural “explanations” for the answers they get from God. I know I did. Looking back it is rather remarkable how much effort the Holy Spirit put into getting my attention, and I am sure that, even now, I only recognize a small fraction of His Working on me.

        Let’s face it: if atheists can deny the entire universe of evidence, they can certainly deny any “coincidences” that come up. I was fascinated by the “coincidences” of course, and by the miracle of macro-evolution, but it wouldn’t get me over the top. I could always explain it away.

        I needed something science-y, or at least logical in some sense. However, that could be limited to STEM-trained people, I don’t know.

        One atheist I know was radically “converted” at one of those big rallies with altar calls or whatever. He gave up pot, and began evangelizing the unreached using radio. He was really into it. For awhile. Then he started encountering atheists with tough facts-based questions. His “christian” world fell apart rapidly, because there was no meat behind it.

        Now, he ascribes his “conversion” to charged feelings and nothing else. He is not coming back, probably, even though I have presented the kinds of meaty arguments that you and I like, WK. He is a committed atheist and sees these mass “conversions” as nothing more than snake oil salesmen. Of course, the evangelists that hold those large rallies also admit (privately?) that the authentic discipleship return is a small fraction of those who allegedly “convert.” Maybe 10%?

        That’s the problem with going purely on feelings (cue the rock band), and less on fact. Feelings have to be in play to some extent, of course, but if that is all that is in play, the person is not going to stick to it, because he is going to question whether his conversion was real or not, and feelings is not good enough to fall back on in those times of doubt. That is what happened to my revert atheist friend.

        It almost makes me wonder if those large altar call formats do more harm than good. I do not wish to disparage any Brothers or Sisters by this comment of course.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. @Lady of Reason

    In all the posts I’ve seen you make I don’t think you’ve ever called into question either the science of WK’s premises or the validity of his arguments. It just seems to me (and I mean this in the most loving way possible) that you are uncomfortable with religious authority (like the church or the Bible) and/or the Christian God (for example, he judges people). Do you agree with me that your unbelief is really existential and not so much the evidence or arguments? Is it better to have no salvation at all (heat death of the universe) or some people saved?

    And by the way, salvation isn’t simply a matter of being able to pass a theological quiz that some people just so happen to not get the answers right. Jesus told a conservative Jewish theologian/teacher who memorized the entire Old Testament that unless he was born again he could not enter the kingdom of God (see John 3). Something truly transforming by the Holy Spirit must take place in a person and not just new information added that lines up with orthodoxy for anyone to honestly know God and have legit salvation.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent comments. I find that for most, it is a combination of emotion and reason. I have some very intelligent brothers who simply won’t accept logic. The problem with them is pride, not reason. If you accept that fact that there is a God, then you are not free to do whatever you please, as you are now subject to the Creator. Many men especially, have a very difficult time with this. They (we) want to live life as we please, answerable only to our own rules. No matter how logical the discussion, some simply won’t get on their knees and admit to being a sinner in need of a Savior.
    The other side of the coin is what WK spends a great deal of time on – and rightly so. Many become believers, based on emotion – the alter call or some other experience. For these, it is imperative to follow up with actual intellectual rigor and make disciples of them. There are many ways to do this, and one of the major failings of our church leaders is their failure to recognize this and deal with it.
    Ultimately, for most, love precedes understanding. For example, when I coached kids in youth sports, until they trusted that I cared for them as people, my lessons on how to field a ground ball or cover a base went nowhere. Thus, the Bible calls us to love and serve others. Once they are loved, it opens the door to learning.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. There is balance to the emotions and logical appeal. If all your beliefs are emotionally based you end up like the parable of Jesus, a Sandy foundation easily destroyed.

    But if the holdback to listening to a logical presentation of evidence is a bunch of emotional issues then all the evidence in the world won’t convince them.

    Being sensitive to God and the person in the context of a conversation can help you to share with them

    Liked by 2 people

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