Moral Without Belief in God? Sure! But God Still Makes All the Difference

By Tom Gilson Published on October 20, 2017

A new report out of Pew Research Center says that more Americans than ever agree you don’t have to believe in God to “be moral or have good values.” Agreement is rising even among evangelicals, Black Protestants and Catholics. The rise in these numbers tracks closely with increasing numbers of “nones” — people who don’t affiliate with any religion.

Not the Best Question

I’m surprised they asked the question that way. Every researcher knows not to ask “double-barreled questions” with two parts that a respondent might answer in two different ways. Vaguely worded terms are no help, either. Was the question about knowing what’s moral or about living that way? If it’s the latter, then how moral does a person need to be to qualify for a “yes” answer?

This is ambiguous, so it’s hard to know what to make of the survey.

Godless Morality is a Christian Belief

One way to answer is, of course a person can be moral without believing in God. That’s straight out of the Bible. In Romans 2:14-15, Paul writes, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.”

Even Atheists know it’s wrong to torture children for the fun of it.

Of course people vary. Some unbelievers (like believers) are more ethical, some are less. And there are some moral truths that no one can even approach as an unbeliever. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Pretty hard to do if you don’t believe in Him.

It Still Takes God to Explain What It Means To Be Moral

But looking it it that way, and assuming that’s what Pew had in mind when they asked it, that’s a simple answer to a fairly simple question. What if they’d narrowed it down to a harder one, like, “What does it take to be moral?”

What does it mean to be right, and how do we know it’s right?

The first answer, I suppose, would be, “Doing what’s right.” But that leads to two more questions: “What does it mean to be right, and how do we know it’s right?”

The Christian answer would be this: Being morally right is a matter of doing what fits with the character of God and with what He intended of us when He designed us. We know a great deal of it through the design He’s imprinted on us by nature, and even more through the Bible.

It Isn’t Just About Human Well Being

What’s the unbeliever’s answer? Atheist author Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, says that morality has to do with promoting human well being. Taken by itself, though — which is what he intended — that opens up questions he can’t answer. Not from his own perspective, anyway.

First, it doesn’t answer a lot of tough moral questions — gay marriage, for example. Does same-sex “marriage” promote human well being? Gay men and lesbian women say so. But does sexual activity between persons of the same sex really benefit them? What about the effect of same-sex marriage on marriage culture overall? What of its effect on communities?

LGBT activists scoff at these questions — which is to say, they haven’t answered them. They don’t know whether gay marriage promotes well being in these ways or not. (My answer, for the record, is no.)

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And what about children in same-sex households? Research on this is mixed. Both sides say the other side’s work on it is methodologically flawed. I see far worse flaws on the pro-gay marriage side, myself. Honestly, though, even if some of these studies were perfect, none of them could give more than a preliminary answer at best. Final results will require tracking these children through their adulthood, and into the next generation as well. That will take decades. We don’t yet have that data.

All Sam Harris has going for him on the hottest moral issue of the day is feelings and guesswork.

Which means that Sam Harris’s standard for morality leaves us with no answer to the hottest question of the day. All he has going for him there is feelings and guesswork — which doesn’t lead to much of a moral imperative. Yet you can be sure he thinks he has an answer anyway.

Of course we know that health is better than sickness, love than hate, safety than danger. But that leaves too many questions unanswered, especially with regard to humans’ ultimate good. Does human well being ultimately mean having the “freedom” to do what one wants, above all? Or does it mean having a well-developed character, wisdom and self-giving love above all?

Those aren’t the only options, but consider two people who take those two positions. They may agree the other has a piece of the truth, but they disagree on which is correct “above all.” Now what? If the standard is well being, and if well being can mean different things to different people, who or what decides which one’s right? Unless we know humans’ true purpose, there’s no way to know. There’s no way to turn anyone’s answers to these hard questions into moral imperatives.

It Takes God To Explain Why We Should Be Moral

Speaking of which, what makes morality imperative in the first place? Why are we supposed to be moral? Believers know it’s because of the holy sovereignty of our Creator. Unbelievers I’ve talked with, on the other hand, have no real answer. They know we’re supposed to be moral, but they have no explanation for why.

Some say, “You just know it’s the right thing to do,” which is a great answer unless you’re asking what makes it right, or what makes it our duty to do what’s “right.” Which was the question, after all.

Others say, “Natural selection put human cooperativeness in our genes. It aids the survival of our species.” I say, “So what?” That explanation works if humanity matters in and of itself; but evolution can’t make it so.

Let’s suppose the standard account of evolution were true; that it really explained all of life, with no help from God. On that view, evolution is said to be able to produce humans like us who think and talk with words like, “We matter.” What it could never do is produce the reality that has to exist behind those words in order for them actually to mean anything.

After all, evolution lets species go extinct all the time, or so we’re told. It wouldn’t mind a bit if homo sapiens went away someday, too. No version of evolutionary theory, apart from God, holds that evolution can make any species matter at all — even if it could make a species talk and act as if they matter.

Unbelief and Morality: You Can Do It, But You Can’t Explain What It Is

So one may be moral to a certain degree without believing in God, because God created us all with knowledge of right and wrong. Most of us do try to live moral lives, more or less. Without belief in God, though, there’s no clear foundation for morality. God still makes all the difference to morality.

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