"Can We Be Good WIthout God?" Research Paper



THE REQUIREMENTS OF CP521: Christian Ethics




11 December 2007

(Latest edition: 16 November 2009)

Can We Be Good Without God?

The title of this essay is borrowed from that of an article on the political meaning of Christianity written by Glenn Tinder for The Atlantic (Tinder 1989). Tinder argues persuasively that the basic values of our secular, liberal democracy such as respect for the individual and the essential equality of human beings have been severed from their spiritual roots and cannot long survive the separation (Tinder 1989, 70). This essay will explore the question of whether there can be an adequate basis for morality without religion or, as Tinder puts it, "transcendental backing." It will examine the claims of some atheists that an ethical theory or world view need not appeal to a transcendent, supernatural authority in order to make valid moral judgments and present a critique of those claims from a Christian theistic point of view.

Stassen argues that any viable system of ethics must be able to meet four basic requirements: a) A ground of obligation that answers the question, "Why ought I be moral?" b) "Content of obligation and a way to handle discrepancy between the authority of ethical imperatives and the demands of worldly powers." c) "A source of power or motivation: how can I will what is obligatory on me?" d) Knowledge of "the channel or means of empowerment through which the motivating power of goodness becomes effective, especially in the face of conflict, change and hope." (Stassen, 2003 62). These requirements serve as a basis of inquiry into the question of whether ethics has an adequate foundation without religion. While it can be argued that other religions also provide a transcendental backing for morality, Christianity will be considered in particular since it, along with its roots in Judaism, has been the predominant religious influence in the development Western Civilization. It is also the one with which most atheists and other secularists have the most contention.

Many atheists are well known for making moral arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular. The purpose of this paper is not so much to defend against those arguments as it is to see whether atheists have any legitimate recourse to a basis for morality without religion. Morality is something that we can't live without, regardless of our beliefs about religion. It is the "baby" that must not be thrown out with the "bath water" in any moral argument against religion. This paper will examine how well atheists are able to keep and defend basic commonly held moral values that are vital to society without recourse to a transcendent religious authority.

Richard Dawkins devotes a chapter in his recent book, The God Delusion, to the question of "The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?" He finds a basis for what we might consider moral behavior in human evolution. According to Dawkins, there are "four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or 'moral' towards each other." 1) Genetic kinship predisposes biologically related individuals to favor one another over outsiders. 2) Those biologically disposed to helping in turn benefit from reciprocation: "the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours, in 'anticipation' of payback." 3) "The Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness." and 4) Truly superior individuals are able to be conspicuously generous and altruistic thus having a greater ability not only to survive their risky behavior but to attract admiring mates in doing so (Dawkins 2006, 214-22). Darwinian natural selection therefore favors individuals who exhibit moral behavior and encodes it in our genes.

Aside from the fact that these reasons seem to be making giant leaps of faith for those who have trouble accepting the premise of evolutionary naturalism in explaining human origin1, even on its own terms, this Darwinian reasoning only explains crude imitations of moral behavior. It doesn't commend it or justify the suppression of immoral behavior. It only gives such behavior the force of a biological "rule of thumb" (Dawkins 2006, 222). But modern human beings have the intellectual capacity to override their genetic predisposition for good behavior for the sake of self-interest. Evolutionary explanations are of little help in answering the question of why genocide, or even an individual case of murder, robbery or rape here or there is wrong and ought to be opposed or punished (Yancey 1998a; 1998b). As C. S. Lewis put it,

Now that I know that my impulse to serve posterity is just the same kind of thing as my fondness for cheese--now that its transcendental pretensions have been exposed for a sham--do you think I shall pay much attention to it? ... If we are to continue to make moral judgments (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. (Lewis 1978, 38).

Dawkins tries to deal with this objection by framing it in terms of a requirement for God being necessary as a cosmic police officer who needs to keep people in line by threat of punishment and guilt manipulation and chiding those who propose it for thinking themselves to be so immoral as to need such an enforcer to keep them from doing evil. While it may be that riots break out when police go on strike, as happened in peaceable Montreal, Canada in 1969, Dawkins cynically assumes that the relative numbers of religious and irreligious people who either rioted or were law abiding in this instance were the same as the population at large. He therefore concludes that the effect of religion on people's behavior is negligible and backs up his assumption with statistics from Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation citing higher crime rates in politically "red" states (supposedly more influenced conservative Republican Christians) than "blue" states. He also quotes Dan Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell, claiming that many studies which have withstood refutation by religious organizations support this conclusion (Dawkins 2006, 226-30). Ironically, Dawkins and his supporters may have been given some very good data to chew on by a book published in the same year as The God Delusion and which comes not from a religious organization but from a researcher who initially held assumptions compatible with theirs. Arthur Brooks, in Who Really Cares, finds that "Religious people are more charitable in every measurable nonreligious way--including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty--than secularists" (Brooks 2006, 38).

The "cosmic police officer" argument is somewhat of a red herring. It tends to sidetrack the issue away from the more basic question of what justifies having a police force to guard against anyone's misbehavior in the first place and what authenticates the standard of behavior that police typically represent and enforce. Dawkins finally gets more to the metaethical meat of the matter when he attempts to defend against the argument of an "imaginary religious apologist" who accuses atheists of having no absolute standard for right or wrong if they do not believe in a God who gives authority to such a standard: "If morality is merely a matter of choice, [Adolf] Hitler could claim to be moral by his own eugenically inspired standards, and all the atheist can do is make a personal choice to live by different lights" (Dawkins 2006, 230). Exactly.

Unfortunately, his rebuttal seems to confuse the need for a moral authority that transcends human ideas of morality with an unquestioned set of rules that determine good or bad behavior regardless of circumstance: "Good is good and bad is bad and we don't mess around deciding particular cases by whether, for example, somebody suffers." He finds some use for Kant's categorical imperative (roughly, that we should do only according to what we think would be right for everyone to do), acknowledges that it doesn't seem to apply well to morality in general and takes refuge in Robert Hinde's statement that "moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason." He never really deals with the issue of how we can justify imposing our morality on someone like Hitler who certainly didn't believe that murder was good as a general principle, but only in its application to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped persons. Wouldn't his moral precepts be entirely defensible by reason based on the premise that these people are enemies or misfits in the kind of society that he wanted to build? How can reason alone determine whether or not such a premise is moral or immoral? By the end of the chapter, Dawkins simply dismisses the idea of "absolutist morals" by likening them to a "my country right or wrong" form of patriotism (Dawkins 2006, 230-3).

Dawkins is not a professional philosopher or ethicist though he is a widely read popularizer of atheism and anti-theistic views. A more rigorous defense of an objective standard for ethics without religion is given by philosopher Michael Martin in his book, Atheism, Morality and Meaning. Martin outlines and answers several moral criticisms of atheism and describes and defends an ethical theory that has no need for religion.2 Many of the objections to morality without religion that Martin outlines and refutes do appear to be weak but others appear to be misrepresented or inadequately refuted. Martin summarizes each argument in the form of a syllogism. One of the arguments that seems to me to have the most merit is one that he calls the "Argument from Expediency" which Martin summarizes as:

1. If objective morality without God is possible, then firm principled restrictions on certain evil acts are necessary.

2. If firm principled restrictions on certain evil acts are necessary, then secular morality must not be based on either subjective intuitions or utilitarianism.

3. But secular morality must be based on either subjective intuitions or utilitarianism.


4. Hence, objective morality without God is impossible. (Martin 2002, 34)

Martin's main objection to the argument seems to be that assumes that torture, slavery, and punishment of the innocent are always wrong. But despite what critics claim, such actions can be morally right in certain circumstances. Anyone who denies this must account for the strong moral appeal of the following hypothetical example: Suppose a powerful evil alien orders you to perform a morally horrible act such as the torture of a small child. The alien gives you the following choice: Either you torture the child, or he will destroy Earth. Would it not be morally right to torture the child? (Martin 2002, 35)

Aside from this example's being outside the realm of human experience, it's uncertain that it makes Martin's intended point. Why would it be morally right to torture a child to save the Earth? Because the lives of everyone else are worth more than the child's safety and innocence? Is being forced to torture a child in this case then something I can be proud of later? If I refuse, is responsibility for destruction of the Earth somehow transferred from the alien to me? Aside from this, Martin's statement that this argument assumes that certain actions are always wrong seems unwarranted. The only assumption necessary for the argument is that the conclusions drawn by our moral reasoning apply to others as well as ourselves; others who may come to different conclusions and must be restrained from carrying them out. If one judges torture or slavery to be wrong in any case--in whatever circumstance--an objective standard of morality is required to apply that judgement to anyone with opposing values who disagrees for whatever reason.

Martin also argues that utilitarians could adopt "an objective theory of value" based "on such things as the possession of certain character traits, the exercise of certain capacities, and the development of certain relations with others and the world. Thus, one example of an objective value is a character trait that refrains as a matter of principle from torturing infants and punishing the innocent." But how one is supposed to judge which principles or character traits are good for, applicable to, or desirable for, everyone is not made clear. Martin also finds fault with the apparent assumption that all secular ethicists are utilitarians citing Peter Byrne's "virtue ethics" which "admits goodness and badness, right and wrong, in the structure of moral relationships and it can see them embodied in the acts themselves (arising out [of] their relationship of habits of choice in life as a whole)." This supposedly means that good or bad acts are self-authenticating or self-evident as a "manifestation of virtue." (Martin 2002, 34-6) This by itself is not very convincing. How does it convince anyone that they ought to be virtuous or give us the moral standing to compel others to be virtuous?

Of course, to critique arguments that atheism has no adequate basis for morality is not enough. On the positive side, it must be shown that atheists have an adequate basis for moral judgments without appeal to a transcendent authority for their moral principles. The ethical theory that Martin sees as being most promising for providing an objective basis for morality without religion is called the Ideal Observer Theory. According to this theory, moral actions can be "analyzed in terms of the ethically significant reactions of an observer who has certain ideal properties such as being fully informed and completely impartial." So an act would be morally wrong if an Ideal Observer would contemplate that act with a feeling of disapproval. In order to avoid circularity, the characteristics of this Ideal Observer must be defined in nonethical terms. An Ideal Observer must be: 1) Omniscient with respect to nonmoral facts. 2) Omnipercipient defined as being "able to visualize simultaneously all facts and the consequences of all possible acts just as vividly as if he were actually perceiving them all." 3) Disinterested and impartial. 4) "Dispassionate in the sense that he is incapable of experiencing emotions that are directed toward particular individuals as such; moreover, his emotions would not be changed under appropriate conditions of reversal."3 5) Consistent. 6) Normally human in other respects (Martin 2002, 50-63).

One might be tempted to think that this Ideal Observer has many attributes of God or a godlike person but the last characteristic is meant to distinguish the Ideal Observer from the theistic God since the Ideal Observer doesn't have all the attributes of God (being omnipotent, all-good, disembodied, etc.). Although the Ideal Observer is a hypothetical person, these attributes can be approximated by real persons and the judgments that follow from them can be imagined to a sufficient degree as to make us capable of objectively moral judgments. The theory doesn't require the actual existence of an Ideal Observer or that such an Observer be ideal in an ethical sense: "... the phrase 'ideal observer' is used in approximately the same way as 'perfect vacuum' or 'frictionless machine.' In other words, the Ideal Observer's properties of being fully informed and being completely unbiased are in principle reducible to empirical properties and are not ethical ideals on a par with being completely just or fully benevolent" (Martin 2002, 50). "Just as we can confirm how frictionless machines would react by extrapolating from machines that approximate a frictionless state, so we can confirm how an Ideal Observer would react by extrapolating from human beings that approximate to Ideal Observers" (Martin 2002, 54).

The Ideal Observer must be defined in terms of nonethical properties to avoid circular reasoning but in his attempt to do so Martin asks his readers to make a huge leap of faith. Information and bias are not simple quantities like air pressure or the relative smoothness of the connecting surfaces of a machine's parts. Being "fully informed" is not analogous to having a "perfect vacuum" because information is not a simple quantity. It can't be measured on a linear scale. Each bit of information has its own characteristics of quality, relevance and reliability that may be unconnected with that of any other piece of relevant information. One additional piece of information about an incident can make all the difference. There is a problem in knowing when one is fully informed, or how good an approximation of an observer is to being fully informed, that makes the sort of extrapolation that Martin suggests of dubious value.

A second critical problem with the Ideal Observer theory is that its usefulness is limited to moral decisions and has no way of judging the values or virtues that inform and support those decisions. One of Martin's criticisms of the Argument from Expediency (discussed above) illustrates this:

For example, on a simple divine command theory, since there is nothing intrinsic in the act of torture that makes it wrong, torture is wrong simply because God forbids it. The command not to torture seems arbitrary and hence does not provide moral grounds for obeying it. If there is something intrinsically wrong with torture, then surely it is not to be done even if God does not exist" (Martin 2002, 36).

The problem with this line of reasoning is that morality is not simply a matter of decisions about moral or immoral acts. It's not that torture is intrinsically wrong so much as the idea that humans have an inherent dignity that makes it wrong for them to be tortured. "Why treat persons as ends and not just as means? Because God created the human person in his own image, thereby requiring a respect for persons that resembles respect for God" (Holmes 1984, 74-5). An Ideal Observer can only assume a certain level of human dignity or equality, not create such a value and, without appealing to a higher authority, has no basis for imposing it on others who do not hold this value. How does an Ideal Observer find fault with the belief that certain people have much less worth or dignity than oneself which justifies torturing or killing them?

One might argue that a society that did not uphold basic human dignity and equality would not last very long, but Mitchell succinctly contradicts this reasoning: "Societies have survived which treated the lives of foreigners as of comparatively little account, and slavery as an institution has flourished throughout the centuries. To kill the weak and old may even promote survival. Indeed the very emphasis upon the preservation of society as a reason for respecting human life can easily result in subordinating the individual life to the interests of society were this thought to be necessary" (Mitchell 1980, 122). Then there is the question of why one should value the survival of society as such if it conflicts with one's own ends when one has whatever means needed to achieve those ends. Hitler valued a different sort of society than one that presumed the equal dignity and quality of all human beings. The Ideal Observer at best seems to be a projection of the ego of the ethical theorist and as such implicitly inherits ethical principles presupposed by the theorist.

As Holmes points out, moral values cannot ultimately have their basis in either the individual or society. Individuals may make purely descriptive statements that they value themselves and others, but this says nothing about whether or not they or others ought to do so. Even socially imposed values can have no authority higher than human assent to them. The ideal of justice, for example, "is no more than a hypothetical imperative: if we think justice as fairness is a good goal to seek, then we will accept the rules society imposes. Maybe we will, but the ought is still not unconditional" (Holmes 1984, 71-4).

Hare points out that not only do humans have an "affection gap" that hinders the applicability of their moral values to others, there is also a "performance gap" which renders humans unable to live up to their own moral standards. Without God's help, these gaps tend to encourage a moral philosophy that is either too optimistic about human moral abilities or which lowers the performance standard to meet human ability. Either way presents unacceptable moral problems. The first is a recipe for despair and disillusionment in the the face of our human record of moral failures. The second presents the danger that our moral standards will become perilously low with respect to the weakest members of our society, undermining principles of equality and justice and setting us on a "slippery slope" toward societal moral collapse. Both encourage a withdrawal from public service and the common good into self-absorbed consumerism and entertainment in the private sphere where people become a moral law unto themselves (Hare 2002, 34-53; Tinder 1989, 85; Yancey 1998a).

Dawkins argues that, "Even if it were true that we need God to be moral, it would of course not make God's existence more likely, merely more desirable" (Dawkins 2006, 231). Martin is quick to make the same point: "If a nonreligious metaethics were subjective and relativistic, this might be cause for regret, but it is something that would have to be accepted and lived with. It would show nothing about the truth or falsity of atheism" (Martin 2002, 24). Logically, of course, what Dawkins and Martin say here is true. But how exactly are we supposed to accept and live with such a state of morality? As Philip Yancey shows by numerous examples, the consequences of this for individuals and society are very grim (Yancey 1998a). Here is one example:

Feminist thinkers have led the way in questioning the traditional basis of sexual ethics. In the Erotic Silence of the American Wife, Dalma Heyn argues that women unnaturally bind themselves at the marriage altar, abandoning their true needs and desires. Heyn recommends extramarital affairs as the cure for what she sardonically calls "the Donna Reed syndrome." In an essay in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich celebrated the fact that "Sex can finally, after all these centuries, be separated from the all-too-serious business of reproduction. ... The only ethic that can work in an overcrowded world is one that insists that ... sex--preferably among affectionate and consenting adults--belongs squarely in the realm of play."

Ehrenreich and Heyn are detaching sex from any teleological meaning invested in it by religion. But why limit the experience to affectionate and consenting adults? If sex is a matter of play, why not sanction pederasty, as did the Greeks and Romans? Why choose the age of 18--or 16, or 14, or 12--to mark an arbitrary distinction between child abuse and indulging in play? If sex is mere play, why do we prosecute people for incest? (Indeed the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States circulated a paper expressing skepticism regarding "moral and religious pronouncements with respect to incest," lamenting that the taboo has hindered scientific investigation.) (Yancey, 1998a, 19).

One wonders what an Ideal Observer would have to say about all this (and why it should matter to anyone).

While it's true that individual atheists can have high moral standards, it also seems true that their value system has no place for a moral authority beyond "might makes right" or individual preference. Their moral convictions are adopted from a world view that they reject, not inherently supported by their world view. We very much need to hear how secular morality justifies prohibitions against cheating, lying, theft, rape, incest and murder justified by the real people in Yancey's examples. Why do we have such trouble accepting and living with the implications of secular morality?

While it is true that acceptance of Christianity is no guarantee that people will be good, at least "the church has within it the inbuilt potential for self-correction because it rests on a platform of transcendent moral authority. When human beings take upon themselves the Luciferian chore of redefining morality, untethered to any transcendent source, all hell breaks loose" (Yancey 1998a, 20). A sound foundation for ethics and morality is something that we literally can't live without. The relativistic and subjective morality that we are left with completely undermines human life because it leave us no moral basis for human dignity. I want to know how Dawkins and Martin propose that we accept and live with that state of affairs.

The advantage that Christian morality holds over secular ethics is not just that it provides a transcendent authority for moral values and judgments. As Mitchell and Tinder point out, the Christian God is one who desires a relationship of love between himself and the human beings that are created by him in his image (Mitchell 1980, 128; Tinder 1989, 70-1). Agape (sacrificial, self-giving) love on God's part provides a context for ethics and morality that lends purpose and meaning to individual and community life. That God would humble himself to become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ to suffer for, and from, the sins of humankind in order to remedy the alienation from God and others that our moral failings bring is a powerful incentive for good that no mere Ideal Observer can provide. To be desired and loved by the Creator is the only sufficient motive and means for filling the "moral gap" that we experience. It is the "divine call" more than the "divine command" that fulfills the purpose for which we were made (Hare 2002, 110-13).


Brooks, Arthur C. 2006. Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide. Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Books.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Hare, John. 2002. Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Holmes, Arthur F. 1984. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1978. Miracles: How God Intervenes in Nature and Human Affairs. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, Michael. 2002. Atheism, Morality and Meaning. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Mitchell, Basil. 1980. Morality: Religious and Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. 2003. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Madison, WI: InterVarsity Press.

Tinder, Glenn. 1989. Can we be good without God? The Atlantic, December 1989, 68.

Yancey, Philip. 1998a. Nietzche Was Right. Books and Culture, January/February 1998, 14.

________ 1998b. Dark Nature. Books and Culture, March/April 1998. (This is the 2nd part to Yancey 1998a.)

1I find Michael Behe's challenge to Darwinian explanations in his books, Darwin's Black Box (Free Press, 1996) and The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007) more convincing than the many opposing responses to it that I have read.

2Martin's book also presents a critique of the Christian basis for morality and life's meaning in an attempt to show them it to be inadequate. While it is an important apologetic task to take such arguments seriously and respond to them, they have little bearing on the merit for the atheistic case for ethics which is the scope of this paper.

3The conditions of reversal means that the Ideal Observer would feel the same way about an incident if the roles of the victim and victimizer were reversed. This excludes racial hatred on the part of the Ideal Observer, for example, if the parties are of different races.