Is Anything "Wrong"?
We live in a generation rife with contradictions in its understanding of moral values. On the one hand, we are witnessing the confused blurring of lines between good and evil, and a desecrating of boundaries that were intended to keep us from harm. On the other, there is widespread dogmatism and an indignant moral outrage at the real or imagined offenses of others.
The prophetic voice of the church is desperately needed in this mix of confusion and contradiction. Questions about the very concept of moral absolutes have never been more important. Do moral absolutes—unchanging moral values that are independent of humankind and are discovered rather than constructed by us—even exist? What is the reference point for the content of our moral values? And how are they to be grounded?
God and Morality
You may have heard Christian voices making this argument, but you might be surprised to learn that an impressive array of atheist academics concur that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist, because there is no way of ultimately grounding them.
The theist goes on to note that belief in the existence of objective moral values is one of the most deeply ingrained, intuitive beliefs of the human race. As such, it gives us good reason to believe in God:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore God exists.
The atheist insists that there is no God, and therefore has to force the issue on morality:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
God does not exist.
Therefore objective moral values do not exist.
This final conclusion is at odds with what appears to be a self-evident moral sense, and thus has warranted further explanation from the atheist camp. The narrative offered goes something like this: human beings—and in fact our whole universe—are the product of matter, time and chance, together with the processes of evolution, which are geared towards the survival of the fittest. We have what appears to be a very deeply ingrained sense of an objective right and wrong, as though it has been hard-wired into our systems.
In a sense it has been hard-wired: it is an illusion (atheists argue) brought about by our genes, because it enhances our chance of survival. So there is no issue or contradiction within atheism with regards to our sense of moral absolutes—the sense of these absolutes is an evolutionary illusion.
There are significant problems with this line of reasoning, and I will raise two. Firstly, the broader systemic problem. The atheist tells us that selfish genes, fighting for survival through the processes of evolution, have brought about what we refer to as human beings. The entirety of the human framework, controlled by our genes, is geared towards the aims of that evolutionary process, namely survival, and not (ultimately) towards understandings of truth and reality.1It, therefore, becomes possible to argue that however much we may think and feel that there is an objective morality, and however much it appears to us to be self-evidently the case that there are some things that are genuinely evil and others that are good, this is just an illusion brought about by genes that ultimately have no regard for truth but only for that which is convenient in the aim of survival.
If this is in fact the case, the atheist has a much bigger problem than the explaining of morality at hand. Our very reasoning (our minds) can no longer be trusted, because we can only assume that our minds, controlled by our genes, are not geared towards truth but towards whatever might aid our survival. In fact, the atheist philosopher John Gray concedes exactly that when he writes, “The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.”2 It is a staggering claim.
Our colleague John Lennox responds to Gray with a serious rebuttal:
But what about Gray’s own mind…one must suppose, according to Gray, that his writing this sentence [“The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth”] serves evolutionary success. Well, it certainly would appear to serve the success of evolutionary theory, if it were true. But then Gray has undermined the very concept of truth, and so has removed all reason for us to take him seriously. Logical incoherence reigns once more.3
Again, there is a significant systemic problem in the atheist explanation of morality being just an illusion of our genes. All rationality becomes undependable in that framework.
Leaving aside this issue, secondly, we hit another, more immediate problem. The claim that morality is an evolutionary construct geared towards the survival of the fittest doesn’t seem to be borne out intuitively by the kinds of things that morality seems to demand of us, in contrast to the kinds of things that would seem to ensure the survival of the fittest. Greg Koukl writes: “Consider two cavemen in neighboring villages. One kills the other in cold blood. We’re being asked to believe he feels guilt, because he realizes such an act ultimately undermines his own survival status…. In the rest of the animal kingdom, killing the opposition seems to secure just the opposite.”4
It’s a little tongue in cheek, but the point remains. It is not necessarily clear how caring for the weak, the vulnerable, the sick, the dying or the elderly helps the survival of the selfish gene. One might expect self-sacrifice in such a system to be considered morally good only if weaker persons sacrifice themselves for stronger individuals. And yet it is a person like Mother Teresa who captures the public imagination in setting for us an incredible standard of moral living. We applaud the courage and the character of those who lay their lives down for the weakest among us. There is a significant gap between what we actually find honorable, valiant, good, kind, righteous, and pure, and what we’re being told is the impetus for that belief.
This kind of forced reasoning—the idea that there is no God, and therefore the need to fudge the lines on objective morality—has raised some important questions and a backlash from within the atheist camp itself. Peter Cave, the humanist philosopher, writes, “Whatever skeptical arguments may be brought against our belief that killing the innocent is wrong, we are more certain that the killing is morally wrong, than that the argument is sound.”5 It is a telling insight.
We have, as a result, a growing field of “religious atheism” as it’s been dubbed by some: atheists who have wanted to hold on to an objective morality but deny the need for its grounding in God. Sam Harris has been the most prominent voice in this field at the popular level. In 2010, he published the book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values and in it he says that we do not need God, as the world of science can give us the grounding and the context in which we encounter moral truth. Harris writes, “We simply must stand somewhere. I am arguing that, in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone.”6
With that statement taken as a given, he goes on, throughout the book, to bring various definitions of what the opposite of that misery (what he calls “human well-being”) would look like, and to suggest ways in which neuroscience might, in the future, provide us with ways of measuring that well-being. If science achieves such a feat, Harris argues, we would be able to say (with objectivity) whether one culture or another—or one set of ideas or another—enhanced or diminished human wellbeing and was therefore “true” or “false” with regard to moral values. In other words, we would encounter moral truth grounded in science, as opposed to God.
Can you see the problem? Harris starts by assuming that moral truths exist, and even outlining that they can be boiled down to the idea of well-being. He hasn’t used science to get him there. It is not science that underpins the foundations of Harris’s theory. These are just his starting assertions, his intuitions. It is only after positing those two assumptions that he then goes on to bring a kind of pseudoscience in to measure his own construction of morality. (I am calling it a “pseudoscience” because, by his own admission, the field of neuroscience is not yet capable of doing what Harris says would need to be done, even within his own construct). This kind of logical leap is representative of the field and it fails to achieve its objective. Moral absolutes remain impossible to ground in a godless universe.
To be clear, it is important to note that we are not arguing that you need a belief in God in order to lead a moral life. It is quite obviously the case that there are many people who do not believe in God but who lead exemplary lives, just as there are, unfortunately, many who profess to believe in God whose lives leave questions unanswered. Similarly, we are not arguing that a belief in God is necessary in order to recognize objective moral values or to know and to formulate a system of ethics. In fact, if the Christian worldview is to be taken, it provides us with reasons for believing that by very nature of being human each of us would have something of the moral law imprinted on us regardless of the status of our relationship with God. The Bible tells us that we are made in “the image of God”—hence we are moral beings—and given consciences that speak to the moral law within (see Romans 2:14-15). Whether we acknowledge its source or don’t acknowledge God, that God-given faculty is not incapacitated. The question at hand is a more foundational one: the question of whether we can coherently ground absolute moral values in a world without God.
I think the vast majority of people in this universe believe it to be the case that torturing babies is not just frowned upon as a societal norm, or a personal preference, but that it is in reality objectively wrong. Or again, that rape and genocide are not just matters of preference or cultural norms but are objectively wrong. That even if, for example, Hitler had won the Second World War, and had succeeded in exterminating all of the Jews, conquering the whole world, and indoctrinating everyone to believe in his ideology, that the Holocaust would still be wrong. You cannot coherently ground that view without reference to God—but this is where it becomes essential to clarify which God we are talking about.
The Person at the Center of the Story
It would be a mistake to think that you can posit any God you like and still account for our understanding of the moral law. Everything hinges on the character of the creator at the center of the story. In the Islamic worldview, you have a God whose nature is not essentially good and who defines morality by his commands. Many philosophers grappling with the theistic answer to the question of an absolute morality have unknowingly assumed an Islamic perspective and raised some important and significant challenges to it.
If good is defined simply by whatever God commands, then morality is arbitrary—God could command us to kill everyone who disagrees with us, and we would have to consider that, by definition, to be good. If we push back and say, “God commands things because they are good,” then there must be some objective standard outside of God by which He measures good and evil, and, if there is such a thing, then we don’t need God in the first place—why not go to the standard directly ourselves?
The Christian reality is profoundly different. God Himself is the plumb line. “HOLY HOLY HOLY is the Lord God Almighty”7 is the wonderful, ringing affirmation of Scripture. The Bible presents to us the God who “is light” and in whom there is “no darkness at all.”8 The God who “does not change like shifting shadows.” The God who keeps his promises. The God who is faithful. The God who does not lie. The God who is truth. The God who hates injustice. The God who judges justly. The God who is righteous. The God who cares for the weak, the destitute, the widow, and the fatherless. The God who is kind. The God who is gentle. The God who is love.
The moral law is not grounded in the commands of God but rather in the character of God. This is why the command of God in Scripture is not simply to “be holy according to my commands.” No; the reality is far more profound: “Be holy as I am holy.”9 It is a unique command. No other God either makes or sustains the claim to absolute holiness.
When Christians make the claim that there is such a thing as an objective moral standard, we are saying that there is a God whose character provides that standard and whose commands flow entirely in keeping with that character. I think David saw this when he was writing in the Psalms, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”10 The moral law is a glimpse into the glory of God himself.
What About the Personal Questions?
There is, of course, much more that could be written as we consider the conceptual questions raised by moral absolutes. What about the personal questions?
A couple of years ago, I found it interesting that while doing a mission at a university in the UK that had few professing Christians on campus, the vast majority of students filling out our surveys said that they struggled with guilt. The truth is that we can think about moral values as abstract concepts for hours, and it has no impact, but it takes one second’s worth of a bad decision to make a lifetime’s worth of regret.
We have gotten so good at convincing ourselves that we are relatively good that we never seem to stop and think: “Well, what about the bad parts then? Does anything happen to them? Do they need to be accounted for?” One of the most famous letters written to a newspaper was by G.K. Chesterton. The Times had run an article entitled “What’s wrong with the world?” to which Chesterton had written the following reply:
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.
This is no glib reply. In two little words, Chesterton points us to the profound reality that we are, each and every one of us, broken, and in desperate need of forgiveness. Isaiah writes these solemn words: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”11 We all stand on the same ground before the cross. We all carry guilt. We are in need of forgiveness. And we long for justice.
The atheist tells us that there will be no judgment, no day of reckoning, and that the only justice we can hope for is whatever can be meted out by our law courts in this life. You are left with cases like Jimmy Savile: a legend in his own lifetime, enjoying public praise and adoration, huge wealth, being awarded an OBE and being knighted, and then dying a hero. There is nowhere to go with the horror of the broken lives that we are only now discovering have been left behind in his wake. No justice.
Richard Dawkins writes in his book River out of Eden, “The universe 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.”12
It is hard to believe that he could be serious. The world is still reeling from the shock of the images of decapitated heads of children and adults paraded like trophies. Are we really to believe that this was ultimately neither good nor bad? I couldn’t disagree more with Dawkins.
Immanuel Kant famously wrote in Critique of Practical Reason, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” He was right to be awed by it.
There is the persistence of a plumb line—a standard that is independent of us that simply will not go away—and we all know we have transgressed it. No explanation outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview will account for the existence of that standard, the guilt that is very real, the need for forgiveness, and the longing for justice.
Look again at the Cross: the justice of God, the judgment of God, the mercy of God, the love of God, the holiness of God, and the forgiveness of God are all in the person of Christ. God himself embodies the good, overcomes evil, and makes a way for us.
The existence of objective moral values not only gives us a compelling reason to believe in God but points us to some of our most profound needs and draws us to the God who deals with our guilt, offers us forgiveness, and ensures justice.
Tanya Walker is a member of the RZIM Zacharias Trust speaking team in the UK.
1 Although, of course, connecting with truth and reality aids our survival in many instances, this is not necessarily always the case. The considerations of truth and reality remain distinct from the considerations of survival.
2 John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: London, 2007), 26.
3 John Lennox, Gunning For God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Lion Hudson: Oxford, 2011), 108.
4 See Greg Koukl, “Did Morals Evolve?” online at http://www.bethinking.org/morality/did-morals-evolve.
5 Peter Cave, Humanism (Oneworld Publications: Oxford, 2009), 146.
6 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press: New York, 2010), 39.
7 See Rev. 4:8.
8 See 1 John 1:5. For references for the subsequent descriptions of God in this paragraph, see James 1:17; Josh. 23:14 and 2 Cor. 1:20; Deut. 7:9; Num. 23:19; John 14:6; Isa. 61:8; 1 Pet. 2:23; Rom. 3; Psa. 10:14 and 68:5; Tit. 3:4; Isa. 40:11; and 1 John 4:8.
9 Lev. 19:2.
11 Isa. 53:6.
12 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books: New York, 1996), 155.