Thursday, June 28, 2012

Challenges from Atheists: Can One Be 'Moral' Without God?

Without belaboring the point of not posting a response to  "Challenges from Atheists" in over a month, this posting has been in the works during this unwanted time of absence.  Just last month, there was a letter to the Editor of our local newspaper, written by a local atheist giving his definition of atheism and then moving into a tome that atheists atheists are moral people.   Of course I could not resist in giving a response to this gentleman and I also received some interesting responses.

This posting comes on the heels of my letter and the topic of this posting has had me scribbling on notepads and napkins along with involving myself in some cordial conversations toward my argument to the editor.  This posting will use a similar argument to answer the question, "Can one be moral without God?"

While I will not disagree that there are well meaning people seeking to live moral lives, my challenge comes to those who are professing atheists or having no religious affiliation ("Nones").  It is the challenge on their foundation for "why" they believe that they can be "moral."  While there are many nice and cordial people who profess to be atheists and Nones, my conversations with some of them have run to a conclusion that the foundation for their morality to be on a very slippery slope.  

So what I would like to do here is address this subject from a few different angles.  First I will give a couple of definitions that will set up the foundation for everything that follows. After setting up the  foundation by defining ethics and morals, I will move into some questions that will help solidify that an atheist or a "None" can try to be "moral," but their reasons for being moral are really not good ones unless their ethical foundation is rooted in the God that they reject.

Defining the Terms That Set the Foundation.

Why do I start with defining these terms?  The reason is due to those who are professing to have no religious affiliation (Nones) and atheists like to argue they can be moral (one category) and argue from an ethical framework.  So let's look at the definitions.

Ethics.  There are many perspectives toward defining ethics, so what I will do here is stick to the simplistic definition from the dictionary and provide this source's definition.

There are approximately four definitions for the word "ethics," starting with a system of moral principles.  Notice that this does not say morals but it with values relating to human conduct, with respect to rightness and wrongness of certain action and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of sub-actions."

It is the fourth definition that ties the other three together with words like principles, values of human conduct, rightness/wrongness and goodness/badness dichotomies.  When you think of principles, goodness and rightness (along with their converses) there is a sense of "moral ought-ness."  It is about how one "ought" to behave; how good and right behavior "ought" to be.   

Morals.  Moving to morals we see the dictionary definition as something that is moral can be described adjectivally or as a noun.  When we say that something is morally rich, we are using it as an adjective.  In this case, we are speaking to something that is pertaining to or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct (ethics).  We are speaking, secondly to truths that are relevant to right conduct within the boundaries of moralizing.  Morals can also be founded, thirdly, on the principles of right conduct rather than legalities (i.e., moral obligations).  Fourthly morals are capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct (those rules are what?  ethics).  A fifthly and lastly morals are relevant to the previous that when one is conforming to the rules of right conduct, then they are being a moral individual.

Now. What does this tell us about the relationship between ethics and morals?  Ethics have to do with the rules and the principles of what ought to be right and wrong.  Morals have to do with the outward actions based upon some or someone's ethical standards.  

The Argument.

As Christians, we believe in a personal God who is transcendent, personal, and infinite in all His attributes.   Also, we believe that God is the Moral Lawgiver, who has given us His absolute moral law in the form of moral prescripts that are the foundation of our ethics and moral living.  They first and foremost reflect His holy character (His Person) and that He calls us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).  Although we are not in bondage under them, they do provide an ethical framework for how we should live our lives.  As we pursue holy living, we are to remember that they are not just prescripts reflecting His person but the given prescripts are also for our protection against the destruction that could come from living in violation of that moral law.

With reference to the biblical view of man, God created man in His image and likeness.  Within the image of God (imago Dei) we have the ability to love, to create, to reason, etc.  The image of God is about physical attributes.  All of these attributes reflect God's character, HIs attributes and His glory.   Because of how God created man, the human being has an intrinsic value placed upon his life by God,  so that we are of great personal value in the eyes of our Creator (See Genesis 9:6).

As for the atheists and the Nones, allow me to say that the description I am giving  is based upon those conversations, both personal and online, in the not too distant past.  First off the atheist and the Nones reject outright that they are created in the image of God.    Instead, the atheists and the Nones believe that they are a product of random chance and accidental causation from the procreation of their parents.  Some believe that if one follows the progeny in regression they would find themselves related to the chimpanzee or the Bonobo.  Some believe as what Carl Sagan proposed as nothing more than "star stuff" or "star dust."

As far as the value of a human being, the atheist and the Nones assert that man has is no intrinsic value placed upon their being or their existence.  There is no meaning to their lives.  There is no purpose for their existence.  Therefore there is no need for any kind of salvation, because there is no need to be accountable to any "moral lawgiver" because this "mythical Moral Lawgiver" does not exist in their thinking.

How Does Morality "Flesh" Itself Out?

Penn Jillette stated at the Reason Rally that he believes that Christians are moral because, as he asserted, that we are are looking to gain all our rewards in this life so that we may receive them in the next.  Say what!??!   This is so far off to the truth it isn't funny.  In fact Jillette's assertion is nothing more than nonsensical drivel.

So why are Christians moral?  The reason Christians are moral (or should be moral) is because God has intervened in our lives through the finished work of Christ on the cross at Golgotha.  We are moral out of gratitude.  We are moral as a means of worship and obedience to what God has called us to be... "holy as He is holy" (See again 1 Peter 1:13-16).  That holiness will never attain the perfection that God has, but it will allow us to be separated (hagios) from the world, the flesh and the devil.

Can Atheists and "Nones" Be Moral?

That depends.  Anyone can seek to live 'morally.'  Anyone can do 'good deeds.'  It does not matter whether one is a believer in a moral Lawgiver or one disbelieves in that moral Lawgiver.  The Christian has an ethical foundation for those good deeds that is absolute because it comes from God.  The atheists and the 'Nones' do not have this absolute ethical framework.  So how can they truly be moral?  Whose morality standard are they following?

I find it fascinating in listening to many of the answers to these questions.  Many have tried and will continue to try and smuggle in moral language that is only appropriate to those embracing the Christian ethical framework.  Unless one is willing to do this, they really should be using such language, particularly when they reject the Source.

Remember that morals proceed from the ethical framework; this is something that the Christian and "religious people" in general have that the atheist and the Nones refuse to acknowledge.  Their reasons for any form of morality is found in accidental chemical reactions equalling some form of "compassion" which then begets the "moral behavior."  One person professing to be "star stuff" and yes, even "thinking star stuff," stated that they are moral.  Again the question is why and how can you as an unbeliever be "moral?"

Their ethical framework is not based upon an Absolute Moral Lawgiver but themselves.  And if you follow this logic to its end, the result is a severely slippery slope for the unbelievers' moral thinking.   Put a few unbelievers, atheists and "Nones" in a room and let them debate the abortion issue or the gay marriage issue and see if everyone is in agreement on the issues.  Follow this back a few decades in history where we see the outward workings of a pragmatically atheistic regimes living out their ethical framework to its fullest extent.  What has been the result?  The death of millions of people.

What About Self-less Actions (Altruisms)?

If the atheist or the "None" wants to try and do something self-less (altruistic), on what basis can this happen? Firstly, it can't happen if one's moral actions are based upon an accidental chemical responses happening to "star stuff."  Secondly, it cannot happen because that accidental chemical response that influences an act of compassion is really not self-less at all.  If there is no intrinsic value to the individual or group needing compassion and if there is no intrinsic value in the mind of the one meeting the need, then that is not an altruistic (self-less) action.  Let me explain.

The only way a selfless action can take place is when the one needing compassion or a need met is seen as one who has intrinsic value in the eyes of a Moral Lawgiver and in the eyes of his fellow man.  The atheist and those who profess to be unbelievers (Nones included), have no morally ethical framework other than their own individual standard.  There is no need to do something altruistically speaking.  It just does not work that way.  The best thing that happens in the heart and mind of the one rejecting a Moral Lawgiver is a good feeling based on an accidental chain of chemical reactions and/or possibly a tax deduction if that good deed is done within the milieux of good deed or work of philanthropy.

If only the unbelievers, like the atheist and the None, followed the evidence to where it led.  If only they followed the evidence and found that they do not have a moral leg to stand on without a moral Lawgiver.  Without the moral Lawgiver, there is no standard for determining what is "good."  And if there is no way to determine a standard for "good" then how does one determine what is or is not evil?

Besides, history has shown One who came and carried out the greatest altruistic (self-less) action anyone could carry out.  That self-less action?   Dying on a cross for your and my sin.  That action was an historical fact by an historical Person, Jesus of Nazareth, who committed the greatest selfless action anyone could ever do.  And He did that not just for you, but also did it for this former atheist who was gloriously redeemed 32 years ago this very day.  -- Rob

Thank you for engaging this essay.  If you find this essay challenging and would like to pose a question, please be cordial.  Any hostile questions that are off track will be put in the trash can and off to oblivion.