When I speak with atheists about the relationship between God and morality they are quick to tell me, “I don’t need God to be a good person.”
And they’re right, in a sense. Many atheists follow personal or cultural codes of morality, sometimes better than Christians, because all people can know the moral law that has been written on their hearts (cf. Rom. 2:14-16).
Morality has its ultimate foundation in God, but that doesn’t mean a person must believe in God in order to be moral. We must not confuse moral epistemology (how we know right and wrong) with moral ontology (what makes things actually right or wrong).
Consider how a mathematician can use formal proofs to solve a basic math problem, whereas the average person can use common sense and some skills they learned in grade school. Both get the same answer, but they arrive at it in different ways. The average person who can follow the rules of math and get the right answer is like the atheist who intuits moral truths and makes a good moral choice. But the mathematician who can present a formal proof to show why the answer is true (instead of just following the rules to get to the correct answer) is like the theologian or philosopher who understands ultimate foundations of morality (or God’s perfect nature).
The real puzzle isn’t why atheists can follow moral laws, but why these objective moral laws exist in the first place. Skeptic Michael Shermer illustrates the problem well when offers this dilemma for Christians who say that objective morality cannot exist without God:
What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge. . . . If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED.
Once again, we must distinguish the question “Can I be good without belief in God?” from “Are my actions objectively good if God does not exist?” You can follow man-made rules about lots of things (e.g. morality, etiquette, football) without belief in God. The real question is whether following those rules could be objectively good in a material universe that exists without any purpose or meaning.
Here is one answer to Shermer’s dilemma: “If it turned out that atheism was true, I would not murder, rape, or rob people, because I don’t like those things.” The reason I wouldn’t commit certain immoral actions would be similar to the reason I wouldn’t eat spicy foods: I don’t like the consequences that follow those actions. But there would be no truth that says those acts are objectively wrong, just as there would be no truth that says, “I must not eat foods that make me uncomfortable.”
Throughout Shermer’s own book on morality, the only substantial reason he can give for us being moral is that it makes us feel better. Since we as a species are bad at deceiving others, we might as well be moral and everything should turn out relatively well for ourselves.
But this is a practical argument for morality, not a principled argument. If someone had confidence they would live a happy life in spite of their evil behavior, then they would have no reason to be moral if morality is solely about fulfilling one’s own interests. Shermer inevitably has to borrow from the theistic worldview when he uses the phrase “your true immoral nature,” because this presupposes that morality comes not from arbitrary self-interest but from a transcendent ultimate standard.
Another dilemma atheists often pose against the idea that morality has a divine foundation involves the idea of God issuing immoral commands. This dilemma takes many forms, but one of the most memorable I encountered was at a public debate on the existence of God in Kansas several years ago. An atheist student in the audience asked me, “If God told you to kill me, would you?”
If the theist says “no,” it shows that he believes something other than God is the source of morality; but if he says “yes,” it seems to show that the theist doesn’t care about morality and would do any evil thing if God asked him to do it. So how should we answer that question?
I explained to the young man that I would first be skeptical that God would order me in a private revelation to violate a moral law found in his public revelation (Thou shall not kill). I would need incredibly strong evidence that God really did command me to do this and that I wasn’t just hallucinating. But suppose I had that evidence? If that were the case, then it must be that for some good reason the act wouldn’t be objectively wrong (imagine this conversation is taking place in 1942 and it is Adolf Hitler who is asking, “If God told you to kill me, would you?”).
I understood that the atheists in attendance would find this disgusting, but I asked them to keep in mind that any other ethical system they subscribe to can appear to be disgusting when faced with this objection. You could take any non-religious standard of morality and simply ask, “What if your standard of morality told you to kill me (or commit some other heinous evil)?”
What if it turned out that killing an innocent person generated the most well-being? Or was the most rational thing to do? The well-known atheist Sam Harris seems prepared for his moral code to lead to this outcome because he writes in his book The End of Faith, “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” (52-53).
This kind of objection is a “universal acid” that would refute not just Christian morality, but all morality. But instead of getting rid of morality we should use thought experiments like these to figure out what ultimately makes things moral and immoral. Both atheists and Christians have to find a “stopping point” for morality. For Christians, the stopping point is final but it isn’t arbitrary. Since God is a perfect infinite person, God’s loving nature makes the most sense to be the ultimate stopping point for the foundation of objective morality.
Also, as classical theists such as St. Thomas Aquinas have observed, since God is the fullness of being and lacks nothing, he would have to be perfect goodness. Since evil is nothing more than a lack of being, and God is by definition the fullness of being and lacks nothing, he would have to be good by definition and, consequently, serve as the foundation for moral goodness and the moral law itself.