When I was in college I used to enjoy talking with and debating the members of the Freethought Club on campus. The Freedom from Religion Foundation defines a freethinker as “a person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics, and rationalists.” Every Tuesday afternoon they set up a table outside of the student union and talked to anyone who was interested in their group or their views.
One day I noticed that the Freethinkers had printed out posters with a new slogan, “You can be good without God.” On one level I understood and could even affirm what the slogan said. Of course, not all atheists are liars, thieves, and murderers. To the contrary, many are quite pleasant people. However, on a deeper level, the slogan undermines itself. So I went up to the table and began to discuss the claim with one of the Freethinkers. I presented an argument that it is impossible to be good without God.
1. If good and evil exist then we must affirm an absolute moral standard.
I began by asking the Freethinker: Is there anything that is wrong in every place and at every time? After some discussion, he agreed that yes, there are certain things that are always wrong. Things such as murder, genocide, and child abuse are never morally good. Truth and morality cannot be relative to individual times, places, or people unless you are willing to admit that there is nothing inherently wrong with many abhorrent and vile acts. Therefore, for right and wrong or good and bad to exist as meaningful categories, they must rest on a firm foundation. In other words, that foundation must be absolute, not relative.
The question then becomes: What is the basis for one action being good and another evil? If some things are always bad, why is that the case? Just because you claim that people should be truthful, selfless, and kind, does not give a reason why that ought to be the case.
One answer is culture or social convention. This idea can be easily dispensed with because it does not give morality a foundation in space or time. If culture creates morality we would have to affirm any practice thought good by any group of people from any time. Study just a little bit of history and you will begin to see this as a rather unattractive option. For example, I don’t think many people would be comfortable affirming the ancient Canaanite practice of sacrificing children to the god Moloch.
Another answer is that morality finds its basis in evolution. At first this answer seems to have some merit. Our sense of good and evil is universally held because it has resulted from the process of evolution. This could be true, but the issue is that it still does not answer the question of why certain things are good and others are bad. Evolution tells us that our existence, our very consciousness, is the product of time and chance. Random genetic mutations and the principle of survival of the fittest are the only forces behind life.
This means that our sense of morality could have evolved in a totally different way. What is good might be considered evil and vice versa. Practically this means that there is no answer to the question of why our morals ought to be the way they are. There is no intrinsic reason why murder is bad; it just as easily could have been good. If morality only finds a reason for existence in evolution, then our ideas of what people ought to do or not do is reduced to the level of mere preference. This effectively erodes any foundation for morality and justice.
If we are to find any foundation for morality we cannot look to humanity or to the universe around us. There we find only quicksand. For good and evil to exist we must affirm the existence of an absolute moral standard. It may be an impersonal force or a personal being, but whatever or whoever it is, it must be real.
2. Good and evil exist.
The second point I attempted to make in my conversation with the freethinker was that good and evil do exist. This he granted, which made the conversation easier. But what would I have said if he denied the existence of morality? If he had agreed that there was no basis for and therefore no such thing as good and evil? I would have argued that all evidence points to the contrary.
Across space and time, there has been an incredible amount of agreement on what constitutes good and bad behavior. From the eightfold path of Buddhism to the Ten Commandments, from Aristotelian virtue ethics to Kant’s categorical imperatives, there is an incredible amount of agreement on what the moral life looks like.
Where we see variation is in degree not kind. In other words, there may be a culture that celebrates murder, yet even in that culture, they will recognize that there are certain people you should not murder, such as your family. In addition to this uniformity, the moral outrage that is felt by sufferers of evil is ample evidence that good and evil do in fact exist. Even the most ardent moral relativist is upset when “unfair” or “bad” things happen to them. It is a viewpoint that can be consistently lived out. This leads us to the conclusion of the argument.
3. Therefore an absolute standard of morality exists.
If an absolute standard of morality exists apart from the material world, what could we call it? If only there was a name for an infinite, omnipresent, all-good force or being… let’s call it God! Note that this does not prove that any particular God exists; it doesn’t even prove that God is a personal being. What it does prove, however, is that you cannot be good without God. The idea has no meaning apart from a solid foundation.
Up in Smoke
At this point in our discussion, I posed a new question to the freethinker. If God exists, albeit loosely defined, then we must ask whether or not we can know him, and if so how? His response was to begrudgingly acknowledge my point then abruptly turn his back on me and ask his friend for a cigarette.
Whether it was the need for nicotine, or just a desire to evacuate himself from an uncomfortable debate, I may never know. I have often wondered how the conversation would have gone if we had kept talking. My prayer is, if it hasn’t already happened, that one day another Christian will pick up the debate where we left off and explain that we can know God because he has revealed himself in the Bible and in the person of Christ.