By Jon Topping | February 9th, 2021
Just about every time I’ve ever seen the moral argument for God’s existence come up, I’ve seen it get completely misunderstood. The basic idea behind the moral argument is that our sense of morality seems to imply that something like God exists. However, more often than not, people hearing the moral argument miss the point entirely, and end up responding to a version of the argument that no one is advocating for.
“The basic idea behind the moral argument is that our sense of morality seems to imply that something like God exists.”
I encountered an example of this misunderstanding today when someone tried to point out a problem. They said they found it horrible that Christians believe there can be no morality without God. They elaborated on what they meant by saying it’s terrible for Christians to tell people that they can’t distinguish between good and evil, simply because they haven’t been told what is right and wrong by some divine figure. Now, as you read that, you’d likely agree that they’re right; at least in most cases, you don’t need someone to tell you something is wrong, to know that it’s wrong. When a group of men in ski masks barge into a bank and take all the money, no one needs to pop up and say, “just so we’re clear, this is an immoral action”. Everyone present knows it, we know it, and even the bank robbers know it! However, this problem the person pointed out doesn’t hurt the moral argument. Instead, it shows the person has completely misunderstood the point of the argument.
Another common misunderstanding I see in regards to the moral argument is that the atheist will feel insulted by it, and claim something like, “I am perfectly capable of being a good person without God!” They think the moral argument is trying to say that atheists are necessarily bad people. They are then quick to point to secular individuals who do great things for the world, like non-religious people giving money to charity. This is probably the most common way that people understand the argument, but, again, that’s not the point. I think the real problem here is that this argument is quite deeply philosophical, and the vast majority of people have never encountered such things, so they don’t have the necessary tools to grasp the point behind it.
The real idea behind the moral argument for God’s existence is based on meta-ethics, or where good and evil come from, and what good and evil even mean. I completely understand that an atheist can understand that it’s good to help the elderly, and bad to abuse children. I also completely understand that an atheist can then act upon those intuitions, doing the right thing, and not doing the bad thing. However, the atheist cannot answer “why” one is good and the other bad. The only real answer they can give is based on pragmatics, or what is useful, which is essentially the atheistic answer to how morality developed in the first place. On an atheistic worldview, the origin of morality and ethics is based on evolution by natural selection. Humanity developed codes of conduct in order to help with survival. However, that doesn’t make anything actually right or wrong; it only makes things useful or detrimental to survival.
The very fact that this person brought up this issue the way they did actually proves the point of the moral argument for God. They find it horrible to think that people might believe an atheist can’t distinguish between right and wrong without being told. Why do they feel that would be so horrible? Because right and wrong seem incredibly obvious to them. It seems perfectly reasonable, and beyond argument, that one is right, and the other wrong. They also likely see this as objectively true, meaning it’s irrelevant how people feel on a subject, the morality of it holds true, regardless of context. The problem is, the very fact that they feel that way shows that there is a real inherent concept of morality built into the universe that is objectively true (which is called moral realism). But on atheism, that cannot possibly be true. Even their own thoughts, feelings, and reflections on morality prove (whether they like it or not) that there must be something like God, who created the universe in a way where things “ought” to be a certain way.
The real meaningful word there is “ought”. You only get that concept if your ethic is normative, meaning, there is a way that things should be, a purpose behind life and actions. On atheism, everything is quite literally random, and is only following the process of “whatever works will help a thing survive”. On the atheistic worldview, morality can’t actually exist; it’s only helpful (pragmatic). So, nothing can be truly right or wrong. This is where Nietzsche found himself, going “beyond good and evil”, for the same reason he said “God is dead”. He felt that notions like morality and God were merely inventions by humans to help them form societies during our early stages. To him, since we’ve evolved past that point, now we can leave behind those silly and childish concepts of God, and morality. The ubermensch (superman) has overcome the morality that is trying to hold him back, realizing that morality and God are not actually real. The ubermensch will assert his will on the world, regardless of morals. Ayn Rand was another atheistic moral philosopher, and her ethic centered entirely around selfishness, because she understood where atheism led. She believed that we actually “ought” to always look after ourselves, and that the real “immoral” thing is altruism (which is acting purely for someone else’s benefit), since on altruism you are acting to your own detriment.
If you eliminate God from the equation, you eliminate the reality of morality, and reduce ethics to only being about what will be useful.
The real weight behind the moral argument is the very intuition that this person expressed in their original challenge (which is ironic). It seems obvious to us (in most cases at least) that there are good and evil actions, and that they are easy to spot. That very intuition shows there must be a grounding to morality, something that gives purpose to everything, that causes things to be right or wrong. This objective grounding for morality needs to be outside of ourselves, or else we’re just inventing morality for ourselves subjectively, and there would be no “true” right or wrong. The grounding for morality would need to give a reason why there is purpose for human life, making some actions good and some actions bad. Where does the purpose of a thing come from? It can only come from its source, its origin, and its creation. This is why atheism gives us a bad start for ethics, because their origin for humanity is only blind and random evolutionary processes. This is also why theism seems necessarily true, because God “just is” the being that created humanity, instilling purpose in us, which creates an objective sense of morality.
If you’re interested in this concept, I gave a talk a while back on the purpose of life, which goes into some of these concepts. You can find the talk in the link below. https://anchor.fm/jon-topping/episodes/The-Purpose-of-Life-eaa58p/a-a1b6cqo
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.