The question is, can we be good without God? Well, have you ever paused to wonder why it is that we even care about goodness or morality in the first place? Why do we just know that some things are absolutely bad and wrong, like cheating or bullying? And why do we know that some things are absolutely good and right, like generosity and kindness? I mean, animals don’t seem to care about ethics or morality. When a wolf opportunistically attacks the youngest, weakest, sickest deer in the pack, the other wolves don’t accuse him of bad sportsmanship. And when a cat torments a mouse just for fun, the other cats don’t tell him to pick on someone his own size. Humans are clearly different to other animals in this respect, for animals it’s just the law of the jungle for us. We’re also aware of a different law, a moral law, because what do we call someone who acts without regard to the moral law? An animal. And it’s not a term of endearment. As human beings, we don’t just look at the world through the lens of what is, but we actually judge the world through the lens of what ought to be. We just cannot help but think that some things are absolutely right and some things absolutely wrong. And no one wants to do the wrong thing. No one wants to be a bad person.
The challenge, though, is that doing the right thing is not always the easy thing. The philosopher Dallas Willard put it so well when he said, “[t]he human condition is one where we don’t want to do what is bad, but we find it necessary.” Have you ever noticed that? How doing the right thing like telling the truth, for example, is sometimes in conflict with our comfort or our happiness. Once in a Sunday school class, a little girl was asked what is a lie? And she said “[i]t is an abomination to God and a very present help in times of trouble.”
Can we be good without God? Note, the question is not ‘can we be good without belief in God?’. No one is suggesting that you need to believe in God in order to be a decent person. Many of my atheist friends live very good, compassionate and in some cases outstanding lives. The question is not can we be good with that belief in God? The question is, can we be good without God? Can we be good if he doesn’t even exist? I don’t think so. And it’s because I believe that there wouldn’t be such a thing as good or bad or right or wrong without God. Now, that is obviously a controversial statement, but let me ask you this. If there is no God, where do the moral values that we all admire and aspire to actually come from? We all agree that justice is better than injustice is and generosity is better than greed, and courage is better than cowardice. We all agree that love is absolutely better than hate. But where do these moral absolutes actually come from?
In Plato’s famous book, The Republic, we find a very interesting dialog between Plato, his teacher, Socrates, and a man by the name of Thrasymachus. Now, Thrasymachus, apart from just having a cool name, is what you might call a radical moral skeptic. In other words, like many people today, he believes that there is no such thing as an objective moral law that we’re all accountable to. So he says to Socrates, Look, Socrates, don’t be naive. There are no moral absolutes. The end justifies the means. Justice is just a mask for power and ethics, well, that’s just a bunch of rules that other people invent. It’s not a real thing. So there’s no reason why we: shouldn’t cheat if cheating helps us win, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t lie if lying helps us avoid pain, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be unethical, if being unethical helps us get what we want. And then, he illustrates his point really rather powerfully by referencing a Greek myth about a shepherd named Gyges. Gyges is a poor and lonely shepherd who hates being poor and lowly. And one day he discovers a magic ring that gives him a sure fire way to become a somebody because it gives him the power to become invisible. That means he can do pretty much anything he wants and get away with it. So what does Gyges do with this ring of power? Well, he uses it to kill the king, marry the queen, and eventually rule the kingdom; all the while fooling everyone in the kingdom into believing that he is a great person. He gets everything he could possibly have dreamed of. And the argument that Thrasymachus puts to Socrates is, why not be unethical if, like Gyges is the shepherd, you know you’ll get away with it and end up with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. It’s actually a very difficult question to answer if you don’t believe in an objective moral law like Thrasymachus. Because who doesn’t want to end up with everything they’ve ever dreamed of? And if you believe there are no moral absolutes and that ethics is just a bunch of rules that other people have invented, then why should we let those rules put any limits on our happiness?
A number of well-known atheist philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche or Jean-Paul Sartre, or more recently J.L. Mackie, have concluded that if there is no God, then there can be no objective moral law. Because without a creator, God, there can be no objective reference point in the universe for deciding what is right and what is wrong, what is good, what is bad. Without God, these atheists thinkers say, we have no reason to believe that moral obligations are anything other than empty figments of the brain’s imagination. Their thinking is sort of summed up in a classic one liner in the novel, The Brothers Karamazov, ‘if God is dead, all is permitted’.
Now, not all atheists would agree with these atheist philosophers. Some more optimistic atheists try to hold on to the belief that you can have morality without God. But it’s very difficult to demonstrate how that can really be true. For example, some atheists say, we don’t need a God to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. We can tell ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong. But there’s a real problem with that approach. Let me try to illustrate the problem with an example. So I’m an Australian. Now, this may lead you to believe that I have no authority at all when it comes to the question of ethics. But let me leave that aside for a moment and just say that as an Australian, I’ve observed living in Britain that the biggest moral issue facing people in Britain today is whether when eating a scone one should first put on the jam, then the cream, or one should first put on the cream and then the jam. Now, as an innocent stranger from a foreign land, I’ve discovered that people in Britain can get very worked up about this. Each believes the other is clearly wrong. Now, here’s a different issue. If I were to ask you whether racism is wrong, my guess is that you would say, ‘yes, it’s wrong’. I rarely meet anyone who believes otherwise. But when we say racism is wrong, what do we mean by saying it’s wrong? Do we mean it’s wrong in the same way that two plus two equals five is wrong? Or do we mean it’s wrong in the same way that we would say putting jam first on a scone and then cream, is wrong. Now, from where I sit as a Christian, when I say ‘racism is wrong’, I mean that it is wrong in the same way that I mean, two plus two equals five is wrong. That is I mean, it is wrong, in fact. Why? Well, because from where I sit, just as there are mathematical laws that we did not create as human beings, so too, there are moral laws that we do not create as human beings. They exist independently of us, outside of us. If, however, I am, say, an optimistic atheist, someone who doesn’t believe in God but does believe we can still have morality, then I might believe that we don’t discover that morality, we create it (we choose it). In other words, we decide for ourselves if racism is wrong. But if that’s the case, what if someone else decides for themselves that racism is not wrong? What if they decide for themselves that racism is actually good? If I’m an atheist, on what basis can I tell the racist they’re wrong? I cannot appeal to reason. Reason cannot decide here. There is no syllogism. There is no logical formula that proves racism is right or wrong. Nor can I appeal to science. Science cannot decide here. There is no scientific experiment that proves that racism is wrong. As an atheist, it seems I have no ground to stand on other than my own desire against racism. But just as the racist has no ground to stand on other than their own desire for racism. And this, I think, is where hopeful atheism contradicts itself. For on the one hand, it says that Mr. Smith must decide for himself what is good. But on the other, it wishes to say that Mr. Smith ought to respect all people. But if Mr. Smith says, ‘well, I’ve decided for myself that people with different colored skin to me are not to be respected’, what can the hopeful atheist say to Mr. Smith? The atheist wants to say to Mr. Smith, ‘you’ve made the wrong decision because we ought to respect all people regardless of skin color’, but the atheist can’t do that because the atheist believes that people have to decide for themselves what is good. So the hopeful atheist finds themselves conflicted because their beliefs are conflicted. They offer us good moral values such as justice, equality and respect for human freedom, but without providing a rational foundation or a philosophical soil within which to root or to ground such values.
Helpfully, the Oxford Professor C.S. Lewis argues that for ethics to really be effective, it needs to operate on three levels and he illustrates using a metaphor of a group of ships out at sea. Level one, he says, is about making sure the ships don’t bump into each other. He says this is social ethics rules about how to get along with each other. Level two, he says, is about making sure that the ships can float, that they’re seaworthy. This is character (virtue ethics) and level three is about the most fundamental question of them all, which is why are the boats in the water in the first place? What’s their mission? What’s their purpose? This is the most fundamental of questions. Not just for every society, institution or fleet of ships out at sea, but for every single human being. What’s my purpose? Why am I here on this planet in the first place? Well, if atheism is true and we’re all just here as a result of a random combination of time plus matter plus chance, it makes it really rather difficult to point to any ultimate purpose in life, and therefore to any solid foundation for the ethical standards that we’re all trying so hard to live up to.
Now, some other atheist philosophers have tried taking a different tack to argue that even though we live in a universe that is essentially one giant machine, of unguided cause and effect, that nonetheless this mindless machine can produce, manufacture, generate moral laws that dictate how we should live our lives, even if we have to admit we have no clue about how this mindless machine that we call the universe could actually do that. But with all due respect, that just doesn’t make any sense. For why should we think that an impersonal universe would generate an opinion about anything, let alone an opinion about how you and I should live our lives? Just think about it. Morality, by its very nature, is a judgment about how we should live. But how can we have a judgment without a judge? How can we have morality in this universe without a personality behind this universe? The answer is we cannot. Because if atheism is right, and this universe came not from God but from nothing, then what it has to say about how we live our lives is and can be nothing.
The well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant once observed that in order for the moral choice to be the rational choice, we must believe that living morally will eventually lead to our happiness in the end, because nobody wants to be unhappy in the end. But, as Immanuel Kant also recognized, if the universe is nothing more than a blind mechanical system, there’s no guarantee that morality will end in happiness, and there’s no guarantee that cheaters will never prosper. In short, if we remove God from the picture, we remove the only rational foundation for believing in right and wrong, and for believing that trying to do the right thing, even when it’s not the easy thing, is really worth it in the end.
Now, does that mean we should give up on morality? Well, I would say quite the opposite. I think it means that if we don’t want to give up on morality, then we should not give up on God. For who of us, even if we tried, could doubt that morality is real, that racism is wrong, and that acts of kindness are good. I mean, we can no more doubt the existence of a moral law, then we can doubt the existence of scientific laws. Both are true. Both are important. Our understanding of life is incomplete without the other but God makes sense of both. He makes sense of life in all its entirety.
In summary, then, since a universe without God could not generate the existence of good and bad and right and wrong as facts about reality. And since good and bad and right and wrong are facts about reality. Therefore, God exists. In other words, the existence of morality in this universe points us to the existence of personality behind this universe, to the existence of a God who not only explains the existence of goodness in the universe, but is the source of all goodness. It’s like the sun. It not only explains light and warmth in our world, it is the source of all light and warmth in our world.
Let me close with this. I just want to say Christianity, all that being said, is not just about being a good person. It’s about being in a relationship with a person who is good. Perfectly good, actually. Now, thankfully, God does not say to us, ‘now you must also be perfectly good or else!’. Through Jesus, He invites us as good or as bad as we are into a relationship with Him. And He promises, in that relationship, to not only help us to do what is good, even when it’s not easy, but to love that which is good as we grow in our love for Him who embodies that good. And the Bible calls that news about God good news.
And it begs the question, does it not? That, if God really is the source of all that is good in this world that He made, why would anyone want to try to be good without Him?