The question of whether a person can be good without God might seem a strange one. After all, surely none of us would be so arrogant as to claim that only those who believe in God can live a good life. In fact, Christians recognise that others who do not share our faith can live exemplary lives. So, is that the end of the matter?
By no means. In fact, it is possible we have misunderstood the question1. It is not a question of practice but rather at its deepest level a philosophical question. While we can say that the actions of many who do not believe in God can be considered good we must ask on what basis we judge their actions to be good. That is, how do we know what is good? Do we have a basis on which we can consistently distinguish between right and wrong, between good and evil? Is there such a thing as objective morality, a set of moral absolutes which we can authoritatively present to all human kind as standards by which they should conduct their lives, standards which do not come subjectively from us but transcend us? Or is the alternative true; that values we hold dear are in fact mere social convention? If morality is just social convention, can we really say that any action is truly good and truly right? William Lane Craig points out that fundamentally the question of whether a person can be good without God is not a question of whether ‘belief in God’ is necessary for morality but whether the ‘existence of God’ is necessary for morality – if God does not exist is there any alternative basis for morality?2
This article will seek to answer the question of whether someone can be good without God – or to put it another way is the existence of God necessary as a basis for objective morality. It will begin by setting out what a basis for morality looks like, answering the question: ‘What does it mean to describe something as an absolute good or moral right?’ and discussing whether this standard is necessary. It will then show that the Christian, through his/her belief in the infinite personal God, has a consistent moral system by which he/she can judge what it means to be good. Finally, it will explore alternative theories, highlighting their deficiencies.
What does it mean to describe something as an absolute good or moral right? Is this description necessary?
A moral absolute is the opposite of moral relativism. Moral relativism, which is very prevalent in our society today, states that morality is essentially a personal thing. We each have the right to determine what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. Our upbringing means we each have different perspectives, which lead us to different conclusions as to what is right and what is wrong. I may believe that it is right to do ‘X’. You may believe that it is wrong to do in ‘X’ and in fact we must do ‘Y’. How are we to settle this conflict between our competing moral values? Moral relativism says we are both speaking our own truth and neither has the right to tell the other that they are wrong.
The problems with moral relativism are clear. What if I believe it is right to do you harm? Who has the right to tell me I cannot do this? Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God, put it like this:
‘It is common to hear people say, ‘No one should impose their moral views on others, because everyone has the right to find truth inside him or herself.’ The belief leaves the speaker open to a series of very uncomfortable questions. Aren’t there people in the world who are doing things you believe are wrong – things that they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behaviour? If you do (and everyone does!), doesn’t that mean you do believe that there is some kind of moral standard that people should abide by regardless of their individual convictions?’3
It is easy to think of examples to illustrate this point. Would you stand back and let Hitler murder Jews because he believed it was right? Would you care if he told you that he sincerely felt he was doing a service to humanity? What if Hitler had won the Second World War – would that have made what he did right? 4
Or consider this example. What if you came across someone raping a girl in the street? Would you walk by as though it were none of your business?
Andy Bannister states that his first reaction to someone who claims everyone has the right to decide for themselves what is right is to reach over and steal something of theirs5 . When they object he points out that they do really believe that some things are always wrong6 . Despite people’s insistence on moral relativism we want justice for ourselves and for others. There is a positive desire in us to help others and to relieve suffering. We know that within us there is a desire to help our fellow humans. It is not satisfactory to say we have no right to interfere. Accordingly, moral relativism as an option collapses.
In 1979, the late Yale professor Arthur Leff published an extraordinary article entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” in which he states:
‘I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously.’ 7
The question Leff then seeks to answer in the article is whether a basis exists for believing in those absolute moral rights and wrongs? This is the same question we must answer today, and one I believe Christians have an answer to.
The Christian response to morality
Christians find their basis for absolute morality within the good character and nature of God. If God exists, then we have a basis for an absolute morality grounded in his character. We have a lawgiver, as Isaiah asserts: ‘For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.’ 8
The existence of a lawgiver provides a source of morality outwith ourselves. This source is unchallengeable. It must be if it is to show us how to be good. God is the ultimate arbitrator of all things. The issue of competing views of right and wrong is resolved in God. We can abide in him and trust his absolute goodness. Indeed, this allows us to be certain whether a particular action is right or wrong, good or evil. We have a touchstone against which to compare it. This touchstone does not change with our mood or feelings. It rests upon our unchanging Lord9. The more we reflect on this, the more wonderful it seems. The Christian God is the ultimate basis for all morality and has graciously given us propositional objective truth in His word, the Bible to train us ‘in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ . 10
As Christians, we are blessed to have a God who is there11 ; a God of justice, who upholds the perfect standard of right and wrong. And also, a God who is not silent12 , but proclaims his glorious standards to us in His Word. After all, if he had not revealed these standards to us in written form, how could we know what he requires of us? 13
It is clear that Christians have a consistent basis for morality on the basis of the character and nature of God. A basis that does not depend on us and is ultimately able to decide between competing moral values. But is there any other basis for morality?
An Alternative Theory?
Alom Shaha believes that there is a basis for morality in the absence of God. He writes:
‘Despite not believing in God, and not believing in an afterlife where I might be rewarded or punished for my behaviour, I try to be a good person. That’s the most any of us can do.’ 14
What is particularly striking about this quotation is that Shaha is not content simply to say that an atheist can be good without God, he actually claims that the Atheist’s motivation is better that the religious persons since Atheists do not practice good behaviour for some ulterior motive, such as being rewarded in the afterlife.15. Shaha essentially believes Christians and others only do good because of the fear that God is watching whereas the non-believer is ‘good even when nobody is watching’16. However, there is also a major problem with Shaha’s position in that he states he tries to be a good person. This exposes the fact that perhaps he realises he has no way to objective prove that his behaviour is actually good. What does ‘goodness’ actually look like? If it is not to be derived from the character of God then on what can Shaha base his definition of ‘goodness’? 17
One option is to say that the majority has the right to decide right and wrong – is this not the point of democracy? The problem is what happens if the majority decides to exterminate the minority?18 If you say that is wrong and the majority does not have the right to kill the minority then you are back with the same question – on what basis can you say that they are wrong .19
Another option is to try to formulate a scientific, naturalistic basis of morality. One of the strongest attempts to do this has come from the Atheist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape which is subtitled ‘How Science Can Determine Human Values’. This subtitle purports to tell us that Science can provide an answer to our question. Unfortunately, the book does not live up to its subtitle. Harris does not even attempt to demonstrate how science determines moral values. Instead he only refers to future scientific research, which might provide us with a basis for human values20. He concludes, ‘Whether or not we ever understand meaning, morality, and values in practice, I have attempted to show that there must be something to know about them in principle.’21 He argues generally that ‘kindness’ and ‘happiness’ have a role to play in determining what behaviours are morally good and that ‘one day’ science might be able to make ‘precise claims’ about what is ‘morally good’ 22but he fails to do so in his book. Harris clings on to a hope that future scientific advances might provide a basis of morality but as things stand he is unable to provide this basis. Accordingly, we must conclude that Harris has failed in his attempt to provide a basis for morality in science.
Harris is not alone in his belief that morality exists as a product of some form of naturalist evolution23. The general view is that altruistic people, who act unselfishly and cooperate with one another, survived in greater numbers than those who were selfish and evil. Therefore the “good”, altruistic genes were passed on to the next generation and so forth. Keller points out the main weakness in this argument:
‘…an individual’s self-sacrificing, altruistic behaviour towards his or her blood kin might result in a greater survival rate for the individual’s family or extended clan, and therefore result in a greater number of descendants with that person’s genetic material. For evolutionary purposes…the opposite response – hostility to all people outside one’s group – should be just as widely considered moral and right behaviour. Yet today we believe that sacrificing time, money, emotion and even life – especially for someone ‘not of our kind’ or tribe is right. If we see a total stranger fall in the river we jump in after him, or feel guilty for not doing so.’ 24
Surprisingly, much of our moral behaviour, much of what we consider good, contradicts that which we would instinctively expect to help us to survive. Morality does not win out in the survival of the fittest. In fact, if the basis of our morality or sense of morality is merely naturalistic evolution, then it is just our genes which desire that we do what humanity considers good. There is then no actual reason why we should be good if it does not serve us well in a particular set of circumstances. We should take advantage of every opportunity we have, provided we can get away with it. And yet we know this runs contrary to our moral sense or conscience25 . We will even put ourselves in danger to save another.
Moreover, even if it were true that altruistic behaviour had helped our ancestors survive this does not provide a basis for actual morality, it merely provides a description of behaviour26 . Just because we might ‘feel’ something is wrong for biological reasons does not make the thing objectively wrong . 27
This shows that there is not a naturalistic basis for morality and we must look for our definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ elsewhere. It seems that the only consistent response to the question of morality apart from God is to be found in some form of nihilism or existentialism – that there is no morality at all. Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, states that without God or immortality “Everything is permitted…” and “All is lawful.”28If there is no God it appears that the most honest person among us would have to agree with Nietzsche who got to the heart of the matter when he wrote:
‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?’ 29
In the absence of a lawgiver separate from ourselves, we must become ‘gods’. In such a system we return to moral relativism but in practice power rules – the strongest will determine the laws that govern us all. We all know how that ends. In the 20th Century we saw the result of power and strength. We saw Hitler, the democratically elected leader of Germany, impose his morality. Even if we have a good ruler currently, we know it is all too easy for that to change. And if the only source of our human rights and the protection of our freedoms is the law that the current rulers have put in place we know that ultimately this protection is meaningless. If the law is given by a changeable ruler, then the law can be changed, and oppression can come to us all. After all, there is no reason for us to object to being oppressed because our oppressors have just as much right to their version of morality as we do.
Professor Leff reaches the same conclusion – there is no normative absolute standard of morality and law. The very point of Professor Leff’s article was to seek a basis of morality on which law could be founded. The debate is whether all law is found by man or made by man. He searches in his article for a basis of law that is not arbitrarily based on the will of a certain ruler and is not based on a God he feels unable to prove in his article. He concludes with the following:
“All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why any thing should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved. […..]
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.” 30
For Professor Leff, who was an agnostic, there is no real hope at the end of his article. He never again tackled the problem of morality and law. He was left with nothing and was ultimately unsatisfied with his conclusion. He could have ended with the nihilism of “everything is up for grabs” but instead feels compelled to conclude his article a different way as he cannot deny his conscious that tells him certain actions are absolutely right and wrong.
Phillip Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of California, in his article “Nihilism and the End of Law” has suggested that Leff’s article is really a critique of Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ argument31 . Johnson continues by stating that while what Leff says is fascinating ‘what he failed to say is more fascinating still’32 . If there is no ultimate judge of morality ‘then there is no real distinction between good and evil’ and yet we know that evil is real33 . Accordingly, we must re-evaluate the premise and conclude that the reality of evil points to the reality of the judge – the reality of God . 34
Unlike Leff, we as Christians can read his article with hope. Leff is left crying out for a God who can say that all the horrendous behaviour he describes is wrong. Christians can say that God does exist, He has spoken and He is abundantly clear. There is such a thing as evil. Ultimately, He will have the final word and evil will be punished.
We must conclude that no consistent basis for morality apart from God has been found. Perry writes that while ‘there is a religious ground for the morality of human rights…It is far from clear that there is a non-religious ground, a secular ground, for human rights’35. If there is no God the only consistent view is nihilism. However, we know this fails to satisfy our desire to do what we can to end suffering, to help others and ultimately to strive to be good. This should lead to a recognition that we need God in order to have an objective basis for morality.
God is the ultimate lawgiver and the basis on which we can challenge injustice wherever we see it. We also should realise that this ultimate moral sense we have can only come from God. The very fact that we have a conscience, which provides our moral sense is one of the strongest reasons for believing God exists.
Of course, it is not enough to simply recognise our need of God philosophically to justify morality. We then must ask who this God is and if he is knowable. The Bible makes clear that God has revealed himself to us most perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus embodied goodness as he lived the perfect life. But he also helps us to deal with our failure to be consistently good.
Both Christians and Non-Christians strive to live good lives. Yet we also know that none of us truly measure up to even the standards we set ourselves. None of us are good all of the time. So how are we to deal with this failure? Only Christianity offers us hope when we fail to be good. Jesus knew that we fail but he provides the solution to this through his self-sacrificial death on the cross. In love he died for us, paying the penalty for our failures so that we could be forgiven and renewed in Christ. He gave us the Holy Spirit to be at work in our lives transforming us more into his likeness and he promises to one day do away with the evil in our lives completely when we are glorified to live with God forever.
is the minister of Kiltarlity Free Church: A Christian Community Sharing the Good News of Jesus in The Rural Highlands.
- Craig highlights the importance of correctly framing the question (William Lane Craig, On Guard, p134)
- Craig, On Guard, p134
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p146
- Ibid., p147
- Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, p148
- Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, p1229
- Isaiah 33:22
- ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’. Hebrews 13:8
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
- See Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There.
- See Francis Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent
- Micah 6:8
- Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, p45
- Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, p144
- Ibid., 146
- Keller, The Reason for God, p153
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, p243 states that ‘This book was written in the hope that as science develops we will recognize its application to the most pressing questions of human existence.’
- Harris, The Moral Landscape, p244
- Ibid., p8
- For other important works that seek to explain our moral obligations on the basis of natural selection and evolution see: Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature; Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; and Robert Wright, The Moral Animal. For extensive critiques of this approach see Philip Kitcher, Vaulting Ambitions; Hilary Rose & Steven Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin; and John Dupre, Human Nature and the Limits of Science.
- Keller, The Reason for God, p148
- The Bible is clear that we all have a conscience, see Romans 2:14-15
- Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, p156
- Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, p182
- Fydor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p589
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section p125
- Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, p1249.
- Phillip E. Johnson, “Nihilism and the End of Law”
- Ibid.. Traditionally this has been called the ‘moral argument’ for the existence of God.
- Michael J. Perry, Towards a Theory of Human Rights, xi