Can Morality Exist Without God?


The first time I heard the “Moral Argument” or “Argument of Objective Morality,” I remember being underwhelmed. I did not understand why it was so popular or why it was in every apologetics book I read. And, moreover, many people were talking about how influential the argument had been to them.  

My confusion was understandable. I had been an atheist who believed—or rather, relished—in the idea that if there was no God then all things were permissible. There was no “right” or “wrong” but merely selfish preferences. That seemed logically consistent. It was also how I wanted to live my life, so I found it all extremely convenient as well.  

Thankfully, most atheists have a better moral compass than I did when I was of their tribe. And that is why this argument is both persuasive and polarizing. Many atheists, sensing their innate morality, wish to object to being called immoral or amoral. They also naturally want to find some ground for morality outside of God, not just to win the argument, but to shore up moral values and duties objectively within humanity itself.  

To the atheist’s first concern, let us state it clearly: the Moral Argument does not state that atheists are immoral or amoral. An atheist may be immoral or amoral, but they may also be highly moral. We believe all have some sense of an innate objective moral law, though it is impaired to one degree or another for various reasons.  

What the argument actually entails is the notion that there is no solid ground for objective morality without God. Sometimes the argument states that because of the objective morality we experience, God must exist. Others state that the objective morality we experience is best explained by the existence of God. Overall, the point is that God is the best ground for belief in a real morality—not only one that states what is right or wrong, but one in which we are obligated to do the right and not the wrong (what we call moral “oughts”), and one in which we should and will be held accountable for immoral actions. In other words, a real morality would mean that even if the whole world said that genocide was morally commendable, it would really be morally deplorable. A real, objective morality transcends our opinion, whether it be individual or communal.  

The Moral Argument

The moral argument seeks to show that for morality to be objective, it must be grounded in God’s existence. The basic argument goes as follows:  

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. 
  1. Objective moral values and duties do exist. 
  1. Therefore, God exists.

C. S. Lewis famously described the moral argument in the opening chapters to his classic Mere Christianity. Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’s argument as: 

Premise 1: Everyone believes that there are objective moral truths. We cannot conduct moral debates without them. 

Premise 2: Objective moral truths are quite unlike “laws of nature” or “natural” facts. The former are about what we “ought” to do; the latter about what we observe in the world around us. 

Conclusion: Therefore, the best explanation of our deep intuition of the existence of obective moral truths is that there is an intelligence behind or beyond nature that implants the knowledge of right and wrong in us and acts as the foundation for the objectivity of our moral judgments.  

Rejecting Morality Rejects Humanity

Lewis makes the point in his book The Abolition of Man that ridding society of objective values will eventually lead to chaos. All that is left for the person wishing to flee the “shackles” of traditional morality is his or her own instincts and impulses, which simply boil down to the great “I want.”  

There are two problems with this approach that Lewis addresses: 1) our impulses are often in conflict and we would have no way of knowing when to pay attention to one or the other (do I save myself and not enter the burning building or risk my life and enter it to save the neighbor’s child?); 2) The stronger impulse is often the one that we should not follow. It is when men and women pay attention to these self-guided, base impulses that society is in real danger.  “I am very doubtful,” Lewis writes, “whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.”  

Lewis was writing during World War II where his description of what would happen was actually happening, although no one yet had a full understanding of the scope of destruction. When we loose the binds of objective morality, we remove a major barrier to becoming the animals that naturalists believe us to be.  

Rejecting Morality Rejects Purpose

Abdu has also pointed to the fact that objective morality has a lot to do with our objective purpose. He writes in Grand Central Question,  

Directly related to (if not completely subsumed by) the question of purpose is the issue of objective morality—whether there are objective virtues and evils, rights and wrongs, independent of human opinion. Indeed, objective human purpose and value necessarily entail objective morality. If objective purpose implies an “ought” to human existence or what human existence “should” mean, then objective morality is the set of rules or intuitions by which we fulfill that purpose. At the risk of appearing reductionistic, morality can be viewed as the means by which we fulfill objective purpose and immorality as the means by which we violate objective purpose. It follows, then, that if we ask what humanity’s ultimate purpose is, we must also ask whether objective moral values and duties exist. 

Other Options

Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle purportedly said. Whether or not he was correct is a matter for scientists, but there is one thing we can say for sure: human nature certainly abhors vacuums. America has changed exponentially in the last century, mirroring much of the rest of the West. Old moralities and systems of meaning have been replaced with new, untested ones (though, in many ways, they run on the fumes of the old guard). But the fact is, everything has changed quickly and created a lot of confusion. Like a beagle who has followed his nose without the assistance of his eyes, we now find ourselves in a strange land far from home.    

This new world is highly skeptical about organized religion, though the popularity of certain fantasy novels like, say, Harry Potter, shows that young people have been and still are disenchanted with disenchantment. Nonetheless, in the West, this skepticism has been largely leveled at Christianity, formerly the heartbeat of the very civilization that now rejects it. The plate of religion has been pushed away, but the fickle child has not opted to simply go hungry. Rather, he or she has taken to new ways of being satiated.              

While some skeptics who attempt to be brutally consistent in their views will confess that they have no standard to ground objective morality in the absence of a divine creator and sustainer of such moral laws, many others disagree. Some non-religious sources of morality, they suggest, include Platonic Forms, brute facts, social constructs, utilitarian ethics, and our evolutionary past. It is to those that we now turn. Here are a few responses to those solutions:

Is Morality a Platonic Form or Brute Fact?

Perhaps, some posit, morality is a Platonic Form, an external abstract perfection by which all manifestations of the concept find their source and goal. Or rather, others claim, perhaps morality is a brute fact of the universe: something that simply is without the possibility or need of a more fundamental explanation as to why it is. In other words, it is an irreducible fact simply known intuitively, like logical reasoning or simple math. These things exist independently of human understanding.      Platonic forms and brute facts are uniquely non-materialist options in the list of alternatives to traditional objective morality founded upon God’s character. Proponents of these views understand the necessity of objective morality being eternal, unchanging, and unchangeable.    

This concept of a non-theistic, necessarily existing, universal morality is challenged by philosopher John Njoroge (essay currently unpublished). While he is writing primarily about the Platonic version, I believe his comments confront both views here described.  

First, Njoroge suggests that by claiming morality exists in the same way the laws of logic or mathematics do, atheists are well outside of the bounds they typically draw around the nature of reality. Morality is different from those laws in that, though logic and mathematics exist, we are not obligated to adhere to their standards. However, with morality, there is an obligation, a demand that we adhere to or face some sort of punishment (from social ostracism to incarceration). It may be unwise to neglect logic or mathematics, but there is no FBI Most Wanted List for the worst offenders of logical fallacies.   

Second, the claim that something exists necessarily does not show that it has no explanation or cause for its existence. William Lane Craig illustrates this with the example of consciousness:    

‘States of consciousness exist’ is necessarily true, since ‘God exists’ is necessarily true. That is to say, the fact that a personal, metaphysically necessary being like God exists explains why it is necessarily true that states of consciousness exist.   

In other words, to say that morality just exists necessarily does not free one to assume that must mean God does not exist. It might be proposed that “objective moral values exist” is necessarily true because “an objective moral value-giver exists.”    

Ultimately, Njoroge states that morality is agent-centered in that “it requires a thinking being with the authority to issue commands.” Indeed, many Neoplatonists noticed something similar about their founder’s view, as did the early Christian Platonist, Augustine. John Rist, the eminent scholar of ancient philosophy, explains,   

Plato’s account of the “Forms” (including the Good) as moral exemplars leaves them in metaphysical limbo. They would exist as essentially intelligible ideas even if there were no mind, human or divine, to recognize them: as objects of thought, not mere constructs or concepts. But, as Augustine learned, and as the Greek Neoplatonists had asserted, the notion of an eternal object of thought (and thus for Plato a cause of thought) without a ceaseless thinking subject is unintelligible. Intelligible Forms, never proposed as mere concepts, cannot be proposed as Plato originally proposed them, as free-floating metaphysical items.  

To put it in simple terms: minds create thoughts and thoughts cannot exist without them. An eternal object of thought like morality necessarily requires an eternal thinking subject like God. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre understood that losing the latter will destroy the former: “There can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.” Without God, he is saying, there is no morally objective value that exists prior to the human bringing said value into existence (which is not “objective” in the least). There is nothing that guides us, nothing we should do or should be.           

Third, this theory runs headlong into Hume’s Law: no ought from is. There is no obligation to follow something that simply is, especially if it is not a creational sovereign Who is personal and juridical. One might prefer the feeling of love to hate, but there would be no obligation to be loving or not be hateful. In the same way, a person walking off a tall building would be better served to follow the law of gravity but is under no obligation to do so. His loved ones might feel some form of disgust at his choice, but they could not say it was “bad,” for this implies a moral-emotional judgment in an amoral context. Furthermore, without the good, sovereign Lawmaker, there would be no guarantee that it is better to love than to hate. 

Is Morality a Social Construct?

There are some who might say, instead, that morality is a social construct: a socially created basic agreement on societal values that becomes a de facto social contract. Njoroge points out two major problems with the idea that we receive moral obligations from society.  

First, societies often get it wrong. For example, Nazis in the 1930s and 40s felt they were fulfilling their Neo-Darwinian societal obligations by exterminating Untermensch (undesirables). The only way to combat this is to believe that there is an objective standard upon which we can call their social control programs gravely mistaken and evil, regardless of the will of the people and their agreed-upon moral determinations. And it is not simply because our social contract contradicted their social contract; it must be because a universal standard of morality condemns their subjective determinations. A proper objective morality, Njoroge writes, “transcends individual or the collective human will, desires, or beliefs.”   

Second, moral obligations often directly conflict with individual or societal self-interests. As Njoroge astutely observes, if we are “solely responsible for assigning moral obligations to ourselves, why would we make them so difficult to fulfill, and why do we keep on trying to meet them when we have proven that we are incapable of doing so perfectly?” While it is true that morality is in some ways partly a social concept, “the imperatival force of morality makes it doubtful that appealing to the society can account for the entire range of the obligations we acknowledge.”   

This was one of C. S. Lewis’s objections to a non-divine foundation for morality, as well.  If we truly are the creators of our own morality, why have we made it something that even the best of us seem incapable of achieving? Why not lower expectations? Why not just call our hedonist pleasures “moral goods” and get on with life? Yet why is it that every attempt to redefine morality in this way   leads to pain and frustration? Indeed, the Moral Law must be external because it is clear that we did not and would not invent it, and any “improvements” we have ever tried to make upon it are degradations.    

Is Morality Utilitarian or Based on Consequences?

Some believe that we can understand morality simply from the outcomes of our actions. In this way, you can empirically verify what is good and bad. But many pitfalls lie this way.    

First, there are rival opinions and rival desires. For instance, the suffering of one may cause the benefit of the other. Perhaps the one who benefits, who is in a place of privilege, can simply redefine someone else’s suffering as his or her own individual flourishing. If the majority of people agree, then who is to challenge this interpretation and on what grounds could it be challenged? This type of morality does not define what is good but what is pleasurable or leads to happiness for the majority (or in some cases, simply who is in a position of power) based on whoever defines happiness at that time, and there will be times when the truly good and the pleasurable are in opposition.           

This critique is no strawman. While Christianity is often denigrated because some Christians went against rather clear teachings of the Bible to support slavery, certain Utilitarians have gone against the “better angels” of Utilitarianism to produce creative—but not contradictory—justifications for slavery and other forms of oppression. This was the case for Thomas Cooper, a professor, scientist, and politician who used his Utilitarian ethics to defend his conversion to the cause of slavery in the early nineteenth century after relocating to South Carolina. He believed that slavery causes the greatest amount of flourishing for the greatest amount of people, including slaves. It was his opinion, and the opinion of many others at that time, that since slaves were allegedly morally confused and intellectually inadequate, they were not only happy to receive help and guidance from whites but required it.    

While some may consider Cooper a fringe figure in Utilitarianism, someone like John Stuart Mill does not allow such an easy dismissal. Mill is the most influential Utilitarian of all, and so his support of colonialism, which was not uncommon in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Utilitarianism, is particularly concerning. It was his and others’ belief that those who were being colonized benefitted from such endeavors. Political Scholar Katherine Smits points out that Mill supported and defended imperialism for the majority of his life, believing that the program “brought progress and civilization to historically backward peoples.”  

To his credit, Mill did change his mind later in life because of the abuse that was reported in colonies toward indigenous peoples. While he never outright condemned the “civilizing mission” of colonialism, he seems to have realized the inherent inability for the paternalistic systems to be beneficial for both parties. In other words, competing desires for happiness and flourishing collided and, as always, the weaker party was the worse for wear.   

Second, any system of morality that runs primarily on “majority rules” is nearly guaranteed to marginalize certain people. To put it in terms of a lighthearted illustration, consider someone whose favorite type of music is jazz. Based on album sales and plays on streaming platforms, jazz music is dwarfed by the popularity of, say, pop music. Therefore, one may assume most people prefer pop music over jazz. And yet, if we were to decide that to increase public happiness, we would play the most popular forms of music nonstop in public spaces, excluding jazz entirely, many people would be miserable. In a world where Maroon 5 has sold more albums than John Coltrane, I don’t feel safe placing morality in the hands of the masses! (No disrespect to Maroon 5 but, come on, it’s John Coltrane.)   

Third, we have to question the premise that what is best for morality is for people to maximize happiness. The thought would be much more compelling were I to believe that this world was all there is and ever would be. Nonetheless, what often makes us happy in a moment does not lead to sustaining happiness. As a matter of fact, its long-term effects may lead to the exact opposite.    

Two examples will suffice. The short-term relief of a cigarette is countered by its addictive nature and long-term health effects. This seems hardly a conundrum now that we know how bad cigarettes are for us, but we must remember that at one time they were considered good and there were even doctor-recommended brands. And even though we now know better, some still choose to start smoking. So, there is one form of happiness that does not lead to long-term happiness. Another example, perhaps a bit more surprising to those of us without fame or fortune, are those who gain fame and fortune and are still deeply unfulfilled. They got what they thought they wanted. From an outsider’s perspective it looks like they’ve no reason to ever want for anything ever again. And yet, many people like this who receive more of life’s pleasures that should fill them with happiness are not happy, finding themselves in constant search of the ever-elusive more.           

As you can see, utilitarianism is riddled with deep flaws. It reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which was heavily influenced by the Stoicism of Epictetus. The overall idea of the Fates, the impersonal masters of puppets which Aurelius believed in, was very comforting if you happen to have been born well and wanted to maintain the status quo. The idea of the Fates supported the notion that none should go about shaking up the social hierarchy. That said, while people can be happy and content with much less than they generally suspect, to tell certain people that their lots in life are unchangeable—especially in a world that was still consumed with slavery—makes the philosophy seem a lot less beautiful and tweetable. It was not a system that ultimately cared about right or wrong but instead seemed to intuit what the “Fates” wanted, which was very charitable to the haves over the have-nots.    

Likewise, neither Utilitarianism nor Consequentialism has the tools to stop what is truly immoral. Too much has been left up to the subjective experience of the individual and the beliefs of the masses regarding what constitutes happiness and suffering; the masses and/or the powerful have become the Fates. These systems of thought overlook the fact that humanity has nearly always had a penchant for seeking out happiness at the expense of others by simply redefining all of these and the related terms—happiness, suffering, flourishing, civilizing, human, beast, barbarian—to get their own way.  

Utilitarianism is often the default position of humanity, and redefining the human is the default justification for the consequent abuses. Thus, utilitarianism has less to do with right and good and more to do with whim, selfishness, and nearsightedness. This explains the examples of Cooper and Mill to some degree. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, it is “very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.”   

Finally, there are many issues with a finite being judging right and wrong from the basis of consequences. An ancient Eastern parable known as “The Old Man Lost His Horse” (among other titles) considers the difficulties of knowing whether something was good luck or bad luck, as each can create the other.    

A righteous man lived near the border. For no reason, his horse ran off into barbarian territory. Everyone felt sorry for him, but his father spoke to him: “Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”   

Several months later, his horse came back with a group of good, noble barbarian horses. Everyone congratulated him. But his father spoke to him: “Who knows if that won’t bring you bad luck?”   

A rich house has good horses and the son mounted with joy because he loved riding. He fell and broke his leg. Everyone felt sorry for him. But his father spoke to him: “Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”   

Later, the barbarians invaded across the border. Adult men strung up their bows and went into battle. Nine out of ten border residents were killed, but not the son because of his broken leg. Father and son were protected, and both survived.    

Hence: Bad luck brings good luck and good luck brings bad luck. This happens without end and nobody can estimate it.   

We could restate the last line: Receiving good things can bring evil and receiving evil things can bring good. This cannot be planned for since no one knows the future. In the end, we see that this system of thought is unlivable except in, perhaps, very small communities of like-minded people for a very small amount of time. For one other thing we have learned about human nature is that it cannot save itself; it needs saving, first, from its own self.    

Is Morality Based on Evolutionary Ethics?

Does the “Euthyphro Dilemma” make God-based morality impossible?

Get insights from Abdu and Embrace the Truth regularly by signing up for our free newsletter!

Tags :
brute fact,CS Lewis,ethics,good without God,John Stuart Mill,moral law,morality,objective morality,Plato,Platonic forms,social construct,Utilitarian

Abdu Murray

Abdu Murray is an international speaker and author on the intersections of the Christian faith and the questions of culture.