Morality Without God

A recent course I took on ethics has had me thinking a great deal about the source of morality. How are we to determine what is and is not ethical or moral behavior without some absolute standard. Those familiar with the debate between atheists and Christians on the existence of God are no doubt familiar with the argument that without God there can be no basis for morality. Of course atheists in general deny this accusation. Many arguments are offered to explain how morality can be determined without the necessity for God.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

One such argument is what has become known as the Euthyphro dilemma. The question is asked whether something is immoral because God has forbidden it or if God has forbidden it because it is immoral. For example; is rape immoral because God forbade it and it would otherwise be acceptable or did God forbid it because it is inherently immoral.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that certain actions, such as murder, are inherently immoral and thus prove that there is no need for God to declare them so. However, how can the atheist posing the question prove that? If he argues that rape is immoral because it causes suffering and violates a persons right to control their own body he must prove that those consequences are evil. Eventually in order to prove the immorality of rape one must provide some absolute and infallible standard. If the standard were not absolute then one could argue that rape is ok under certain circumstances. If it is not infallible then it could be argued that the standard was wrong in determining rape to be immoral. So then what would you call this standard that is capable of absolutely and infallibly determining morality? Is that not an excellent description of God? Thus the question itself emphasizes the point that without God there can be no morality.

Natural Morality

Another argument used by atheists is that we see moral behavior in animals. They delight in pointing out that in nature we see animals caring for their young, defending one another, and engaging in other such behavior. If animals learned and developed such moral behavior without the need of religion then obviously religion is not needed for morality. Anyone who takes even a moment to ponder this argument can see right away the fatal flaw. There are also many animals that eat their young, viciously attack even others of their own kind, and other similar behaviors. Why are the first set of behaviors set up as moral and not the second? Who decided that caring for ones young was moral or good? How would one be able to prove which type of behavior is good and should be emulated and which should not? Again we come down to the need for an absolute and infallible standard.

Moral Atheists and Immoral Christians

Finally there is the argument that since many people claiming to be Christians do very immoral things while many atheists behave very morally religion must not be needed and indeed is detrimental to morality. The problem with this argument is that when we look at Christians behaving immorally we find that they are doing so in contradiction of the beliefs they claim to hold. For instance a Christian that lies is by his actions contradicting his belief in the Bible because the Bible commands us not to lie (Colossians 3:9). In fact how can the atheist even argue that the actions of a Christian are immoral? Upon what basis do they make that judgement? What standard is he judging the Christian by? He must borrow from the Christian worldview in order to make such a judgement.

On the other hand an atheist in claiming to live morally is acting in contradiction to his stated beliefs. An atheist must borrow Christian terms and ideas in order to even claim to be acting morally. If an atheist were asked how he lives morally he may answer that he is honest, tolerant, etc… What makes those behaviors moral? How would one prove that the atheist who exhibits these behaviors is more moral than a Christian who does not?

I’m sure that there are many other arguments that are used by atheists in their attempts to prove that morality is possible without God. However, just like these arguments it is impossible for them to prove what is an isn’t moral. In order to make that judgement an absolute and infallible standard is eventually required and atheism can’t produce one.

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