Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/23/2009 (12:59 pm)

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: The Moral Argument

In previous installments (the most recent of which was quite a while ago, I’m afraid), I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here).

idhefcoversmallerOf the roughly 20 arguments I’ve seen for the existence of God, a large number key on some part of life that is vital but non-physical — justice, consciousness, reason, morality — and argue that this cannot be explained by naturalistic causes. Each has its particular quirks, but they all say the same thing: the world we live in does not look in any way like a world that would arise if it were not intended by a being who cares about the things we care about, or who somehow embodies that issue. Human beings use reason, infer meaning, are ruled by morality, seek justice, and in general behave as though the universe demands a reasoned, moral, purposeful life. There is no purposiveness, no meaning, no “ought” in mere chemical interactions; there is only what is. The most likely explanation for the appearance that life needs meaning is that it does, and this requires a primary, personal agent from Whom all meaning, justice, reason, or consciousness arises.

The moral argument is the simplest of these, but they are all inherently difficult to grasp. Most of the objections to them indicate that the critic simply has not thought through the implications of the fact that we actually think there exists such a thing as morality, for instance. I think this is because morality is something easy to take for granted. It’s so much a part of our lives, both conscious and unconscious, that it takes a serious effort to imagine a universe without automatically assigning morality a role, as though it were an inevitable part of any physical universe; and yet, if there is no God, there’s no particular reason for anything to arise aside from what simply is. This applies to morality, and the same applies for justice, reason, consciousness, and the rest.

The Moral Argument

The moral argument is simple in syllogistic form: Any law requires a law-giver; there is a universal moral law; therefore, there must be an ultimate, universal law-giver.

By “law,” I mean something more like legislation than like a natural law. When we speak of natural laws, we mean that we’ve observed that physical elements in our surroundings behave in a certain way consistently. Bodies on the earth tend to move toward the center of the earth, so we give it a name — gravity — and call it a law, because things behave this way. However, there is no moral “ought” to gravity, or entropy, or enthalpy. These laws simply describe what is. We might say of an anomalous result, “That ought not to do that,” but what we mean is that it is unusual and inconsistent with expected results, not that it’s morally wrong. If we’re being whimsical, we can imagine a world in which the “laws” are different, and while that world might be more or less convenient than ours, we don’t regard that difference as meaningful apart from convenience. From a point of view before the singular explosion that began our universe and created time, space, and nature, the laws of nature were arbitrary; they could have been anything, and the universe would have been neither more moral, nor less moral.

Moral laws are different. They describe our feelings about how things ought to be. They say “this is better than that,” and by “better” we mean something very different from “more common” or “more consistent,” or even “more convenient” or “more functional.” We actually mean “praiseworthy,” and we think that such praise matters, although we also assert that doing the thing we call “good” is infinitely more important than receiving praise for it. We mean that there are certain rules regarding how people are supposed to treat each other, and that a person who does not adhere to those rules is something worse than merely defective. People who obey the moral law deserve praise; people who ignore it, deserve condemnation.

Three characteristics of the concept of moral law in the last paragraph need emphasis.

The first is that they apply only to entities that possess a will. We don’t assign moral laws to inanimate objects. We don’t praise the moral virtue of a rock for falling toward the center of the earth, nor do we condemn a yucca plant as a malicious enemy for piercing our finger (we might praise their utility or denounce their inconvenience, but that’s not morality.) Morality belongs to those who can make conscious choices.

We don’t even hold people responsible for morals if they’re simple or incapacitated for some reason. Selfish toddlers are not regarded as evil, they’re just too young to know better. My wife has worked with head-injured adults who have lost the ability to control certain impulses, and while these people often do things that are inappropriate and offensive, nobody regards them as morally defective. By their physical incapacity, they’ve fallen short of the exalted status that is conferred by their behavior having an “ought”; their behavior simply is what it is, like gravity, and we pity them for it. They can’t help it. Morals are about those who can help it.

The second characteristic is that it’s not just about utility, but seems rather to be about pleasing someone or something greater than ourselves. The closest we can come to the feeling is from our childhood, when we do a chore without being asked and think “Mom will be pleased with me for doing this.” Naturally, we’re not children anymore, and the impulse to do moral good feels like something more consequential than just making Mom smile, but there’s something about doing moral good that feels like we’re pleasing an overarching parent, as though the universe relaxes a little and feels better. Whom, exactly, are we pleasing?

The third characteristic of morality is that nearly all of us choose against it sometimes. In this it is completely unlike laws of nature. A law of nature is called that because physical objects always behave in a certain manner. A moral law is called that because most of us agree that people ought to behave in a certain manner but very often do not.

Morals Are Universal

In fact, this is one of the ways we know the moral law is universal — we all make excuses for our bad behavior. We would not feel the urge to do that if we did not feel that certain behavior needed excusing. To whom are we directing our excuses? Why do we imagine that it matters what others think of certain types of behavior? When we are doing right, helping someone helpless, for example, we don’t feel the need to explain even if some find fault with us; it is easy to dismiss nay-sayers when we’re doing good. When we’re doing bad, though, we feel the need to excuse ourselves even if we’re surrounded by people who approve of what we’re doing. The hoodlum who throws a brick through a store window may be joined by friends who would never mention that he ought not do it, but he still feels the inner impulse to explain or excuse his behavior — “He’s been cheating the community for years, he’s rich and can afford it, we’re the ones who have needs,” and so forth.

Everybody agrees that certain people are good, and other certain people are bad. Jesus, good; The Rev. Jim Jones, bad. Albert Schweitzer, good; David Berkowitz, bad. Mother Teresa, good; Adolf Hitler, bad. There are some disagreements over which category some figures belong in — there are those who dismiss Mother Teresa, for instance, because she was not poor at the end of her life — but those are disagreements over facts, not denials of the moral law.

Whenever we make assessments like those, we necessarily call on some inner notion of what true morality looks like. If a map-maker shows us two maps of Idaho and asks which is a better representation of the true state we call Idaho, we would not be able to answer unless we had knowledge of what Idaho truly looks like. If we have a clear concept of the real Idaho, then we can compare representations of Idaho and say which is closer to the real thing. It’s the same with morals; if we can compare two individuals and agree that one represents moral behavior while the other does not, we must have a concept of what true morality looks like.

Immediately one might object that we’re all taught morals when we’re children, and that these reflect a cultural norm. This is partly true, but not relevant. We are also taught multiplication tables when we’re young, but multiplication tables are universal. The fact that we need to be taught does not imply that what we’re being taught is not universal. And furthermore, children do not need to be taught that morals exist, they need to be taught to obey them. They already know what’s right and wrong; anybody who’s raised a child, and watched a six-month-old reach toward something forbidden while looking over their shoulder to see if Mom is watching, knows that the kid was born knowing “ought,” and choosing not to obey it. For that matter, anybody who’s heard a child whine, “That’s not fair!” knows that kids have a sense of justice; where did this notion of “fair” come from? Kids don’t need to be taught morals from scratch, they need their innate sense of morality trained to maturity.

The indication that the moral laws are universal lies in the fact that all cultures in history have held more or less the same standards, in gross terms. There is no place where murder has been considered virtue and gratitude has been considered vice. There are different emphases in different cultures, and different cultural implementations (honoring the aged looks different in Afghanistan than in Indiana) but the basic rules are the same everywhere — don’t take innocent life, don’t steal the property of others, honor the aged, care for your own family, be loyal to your friends, seek wisdom. Even most of our contemporary moral disagreements actually amount to quibbles over which evils are tolerable, and which are intolerable. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”

Let’s summarize: moral laws apply only to conscious, choosing agents like ourselves. We all know they exist; we all agree pretty much regarding what they are. And yet, we often ignore the moral law, making excuses for doing so; the excuses prove we know the rules. When we do good, we feel like we’re pleasing something greater than ourselves; when we do wrong, we feel the need to explain ourselves.

This combination of features — moral rules that are universal, apply only to conscious acts of the will, which are not our natural inclination, and which matter to something or someone greater — requires that the law exist outside of ourselves. We are aware of it, sometimes keenly so, but it does not emanate from us; it’s imposed on us from outside of ourselves. Consequently, the moral argument posits a final Moral Agent from which all our morals emanate. That is really all it takes to prove the argument. The logic is simple, and the only question of fact among the premises — “Does a universal moral law exist?” — is more or less self-evident.

Did Morality Evolve?

It’s at this point, however, that the misunderstandings begin.

The first objection that usually occurs is the notion that morality has evolved. There’s a good deal of research regarding the progress of moral understanding among humans, and social anthropologists make a good case for claiming that human understanding of moral behavior has increased in sophistication over the millennia.

I don’t disagree. However, what the people making this objection fail to notice is that it does not refute the argument in any way. They say “It evolved” as though that explains where morals come from; in fact, saying that explains nothing relevant to the moral argument.

To say that morals evolved is to say that they have survival value — survival in the sense that natural selection can operate because moral behavior increases the probability of survival. If they have survival value then they must be somehow intrinsic to the universe.

Let me illustrate by supposing that a tree lizard, by developing a flap of skin between it’s foreleg and hind leg, could reach branches from further away by gliding, and thus improved its ability to escape predators. If such a thing occurred, it occurred only because the laws of aerodynamics already existed; if there were no aerodynamics, the flap of skin would have conferred no advantage. The appearance of the flap of skin did not create the laws of aerodynamics; they were already part of the universe. The flap survived natural selection because it took advantage of something real and useful, something that already existed apart from itself.

Likewise, if moral behavior actually improves survivability in such a way that natural selection can work, it must be conforming to something that already exists in the universe, apart from the evolving creature. The evolving behavior does not create morality, it conforms to it, in the same way that the lizard’s flap of skin conforms to the rules of aerodynamics. Thus, the evolution of morality actually proves that the moral laws have always been what they are, and that what is evolving is nothing more than our ability to take advantage of them.

There are additional problems with the idea that morality evolved, though. For one thing, there’s no plausible path from “is” to “ought;” they’re unrelated concepts. The mere survival value of a behavior says nothing about whether it’s right or wrong. Without a moral law, even survival itself is nothing more than a preference, and is no different from an autonomic urge to satisfy hunger. There is no moral component to survival itself without a moral law. One might imagine a bizarre set of developments that lead to creatures that actually feel that some things ought to be, but those feelings would have no connection to reality unless the moral law was intrinsic to the universe apart from ourselves; it would be no different from satisfying hunger or scratching an itch, and have no real meaning. So the evolution of real morals, morals that truly matter, cannot actually occur; if what we call “morals” evolved in this fashion, then morality is an illusion, and child rape, genocide, and enslaving blacks are as morally proper as loving your spouse, raising your children properly, and working productively.

CS Lewis, in his book “Miracles,” points that the result of the previous paragraph is not strictly fallacious. Logic permits that morals be imaginary. However, Lewis also points out that even those who claim to believe such a thing, behave in such a way as to demonstrate that they do not. People who behave in such a way as to demonstrate that they genuinely believe that morals are an illusion, we call “sociopaths,” and we lock them up. Nobody we consider sane actually behaves as though morals don’t exist. Consequently, it’s proper to dismiss such claims as a philosophical conceit, and not to take them seriously.

It’s also the case that morality does not fit any pattern that has evolved in nature. In fact, many moral laws run exactly contrary to the natural rules of survival. You’ll find practically nobody defending Social Darwinism anymore, because in Nazi Germany it led to behavior that was so obviously and so starkly immoral that it caused the world to recoil in horror. We did some similar things here in America –sterilizing thousands of convicts, for example — and nobody will defend those anymore, either. Survival of the fittest commends killing off those who weaken the gene pool (or allowing them to die off.) Morality commends those civilizations that treat its weakest citizens with the most compassion. Those are opposites. How could our morality possibly have arisen by natural selection, when natural selection itself produces something we consider deeply immoral?

More Misunderstandings

Frequently, when a Christian posits the moral argument for the existence of God, atheists object that this would require that Christians uniformly be more moral than atheists. They then go on to posit all the examples they can remember of Christians behaving in a horrible manner, as though this disproves the moral argument somehow.

This does not disprove the moral argument. The moral argument does not assert, nor does it require, that any specific individual, group, or belief system produce more moral behavior than any other. Quite the contrary, in fact; the argument supporting the existence of a universal moral law makes the claim that everybody knows the moral law, regardless of their beliefs. Atheists know what’s right, just as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, or Druids. Morality is intrinsic to the universe, and everyone sees it. The argument further observes that none of us obey the moral law particularly well, and that’s also true of everybody. So, no, I don’t believe that any particular Christian necessarily behaves better than any particular atheist, and I don’t need to in order to defend the moral argument.

The answer to the follow-up question, “Then what’s the use of religion?”, is beyond the scope of this article. The brief answer is that religion codifies the moral law and expresses it for a culture, but also that religion provides the impetus for us to obey the moral law, something we’re prone not to do otherwise. This is where the question of which group behaves better becomes relevant; it is not relevant to the moral argument for the existence of God, however. The moral argument only observes that there exists no logical explanation for the existence of morality other than that there exists an ultimate author of morals. There can be no law without a law-giver.

Ultimately, the atheist has to believe that morality arose out of chemical interactions that have no intrinsic “ought” to them. Logically, this requires that morality is simply an illusion, but atheists uniformly assert next that it’s a useful illusion, and one they won’t dispute. They want it both ways; no God to assert moral requirements on us, but moral requirements exist on their own (even though they don’t mean anything.) I scratch my head, and wonder why anybody would consider that sort of finagling more plausible than an ultimately moral God from Whom morality flows.

Next will be a summation of the arguments proving the existence of God.

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June 23, 2009 @ 1:47 pm #

A great post and I’ve enjoyed this series, though one small point of fact (nitpicking, I know). When you talk about the Nazis and what went on in the United States, those are actually the results of the eugenicists who felt that human beings should be bred and culled like cattle to “improve the race”. Social Darwinism was the name given to those who opposed this practice and said that the weak should be allowed to live.

June 23, 2009 @ 3:11 pm #



I’m having a little difficulty locating the origin of the term, “social Darwinism.” It usually refers to the work of Spencer, Malthus, and Galton claiming that human societies also obeyed natural selection the way other biological entities did. Galton was the father of eugenics, so if we’re talking about the influence of eugenics on Hitler’s social programs, it’s probably accurate to use “social Darwinism” the way I did. However, the Wikipedia article suggests that the term was not applied to Spencer until the 1930s, and Spencer wrote during the late 19th century. Also, it appears that “social Darwinism” is actually used to describe a number of things other than eugenics, including laissez-faire capitalism.

So, I’ll grant you there’s some dispute regarding the proper use of the term. But it’s clear you understood what I meant, so it’s all good.

June 23, 2009 @ 6:06 pm #

Quite a long essay Phil – lots to discuss. Here’s an initial question; what’s the difference between “truth” and “absolute truth?”

To clarify the nature of my question, I’m aware that some true statements are true at one time but false at another – “Bush is president” was a true statement, but now is false. On the other hand, “Bush was president” is true and permanently so.

I’m not asking about these kinds of distinctions, or distinctions based on the a-priori truth of certain tautologies (P implies P, and so forth).

What I’m asking about is, when a statement or belief is “true” what meaning is added when we say that the statement or belief is “absolutely” true? What’s the difference in being merely true as opposed to absolutely true?

By the way, I have the same question about the idea of “Biblical Truth.” Christians use that phrase to bolster the credibility of their claims, but I just don’t see what the word “biblical” adds to the term “truth.”


June 23, 2009 @ 6:26 pm #

Here’s an initial question; what’s the difference between “truth” and “absolute truth?”

I’m curious about the purpose of the question, Joe, but I’m assuming you’ll tell me.

I don’t think there’s a valid distinction to be made there. All truth is, by definition, absolute. “Truth” is a binary characteristic; a statement is true, or it is false. There are not degrees of truth; when we say of a statement, “That’s partly true,” what we usually mean is that the statement implies multiple claims of fact, and some of them are true while others are not. A statement that is true, is true at all times, in all places, and for all people. In your example, it will always be true that on January 1, 2005, George W. Bush was President of the United States. That’s true for everybody, and will always be. On January 1, 2005, anybody standing anywhere in the universe could have said “George W. Bush is President of the United States,” and would have been making a true statement.

So I’d say there is no meaning added by the word “absolute” in the phrase, “absolutely true.” In practice, people use syntax like that to emphasize. They mean “Not only is this true, but it’s so obviously true that you’ll look like an idiot if you try to dispute it.” The same is true in your notion of “biblical truth.” What the adjective adds is authority: “Not only is this true, but it’s true because it comes from an unimpeachable authority.” Nothing is added to the truth of the statement; the adjective is added to add impact in the mind of the audience, as a practical matter. What’s true is still true, and there are not degrees of truth.

June 23, 2009 @ 6:31 pm #

Oh, I see. I used the phrase “absolute truth” in the introduction.

I use that because in the minds of nearly everybody in America who is not a trained philosopher, all truth is relative. It’s astonishing how widely that notion has spread. You practically can’t have a conversation about religion without someone reminding you that nobody has the truth, that all truth is relative, that some things may be true for you but they’re not true for me, or that anything you believe to be true, really IS true — for you. None of these statements make sense, but they’ve so thoroughly sunk into the thinking of the average Joe that a discussion like this one is not possible without beginning with the proof that truth exists, and is absolute rather than relative. Without that, Mr. Average will read the whole argument, slightly bored, and then say, “Well, that’s nice for you, but I don’t believe that.”

Does that help?

June 23, 2009 @ 6:29 pm #


There is one huge alternative theory that is accepted by most deontologists (you’re one of them), as to where the “moral law” comes from. It is presented in Kant’s “Critique of the Metaphysic of Morals.”

Kant completely agreed with you that there is a moral law that is universal and absolute (else it wouldn’t be a law) – but he provides an alternative source for the moral law. He argued that we GIVE IT TO OURSELVES.

According to Kant, rational nature is self legislating [autonomous]. Kant’s argument is that reason, which is universal among functional human beings, provides the will with the idea of “law,” which forms the basis of our apprehending the moral law.

Kant believed in God, by the way. He was a Christian. However, his moral theory presents an alternative source for the supply of the moral law, and this rules out the syllogism you offer (existence of law – need for a law giver – God must exist).

Kant’s own argument for the existence of God was similar to yours. He thought that the requirements of justice couldn’t be met in this life time, hence requiring an after life, which required a God. Of course, others pointed out that if it required an eternity of suffering to satisfy the demands of justice, then the demands of justice could never be satisfied – thereby crippling Kant’s rationale.

Anyway, better get back to work. But read Kant’s short book and you’ll see what I mean.


June 23, 2009 @ 8:21 pm #

…his moral theory presents an alternative source for the supply of the moral law, and this rules out the syllogism you offer (existence of law – need for a law giver – God must exist)

Clearly, then, I disagree with Herr Kant, because I explain in my assessment of the universal moral law that the law cannot originate from within ourselves, because we don’t keep it, and because our reactions suggest a need to please or mollify someone outside of ourselves. Also, if the human conception of morality has been evolving, logically there exist only the possibilities that evolution is undirected and therefore morals are arbitrary (which I don’t believe), or that morals are intrinsic to the universe and we are moving in their direction. Either way, morals originating from ourselves are not possible.

Still, I’ll take a crack at Kant when I get a chance. The book is available online.

June 23, 2009 @ 6:49 pm #


Fortunately, you’re not speaking with an average Joe : )

Your explanation of relative truth reminded me of Francis Schaeffer’s frustration with a student he was trying to communicate the Gospel to. Every phrase he said, the student would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, your words are meaningless,” implying that no communication was going on.

Finally, it a bit of a fit, Schaeffer yelled at the student, “Give me that glass of water!” The student grabbed the glass and handed it over.

Schaeffer then smiled and said, “NOW we’re communicating!”

June 23, 2009 @ 6:49 pm #

I asked the question because you used the term “absolute” to modify your claim that there is “truth.”

I think its important to understand that we’re after truth – we want to believe in propositions that accurately express or describe the way things are. We want truth regardless of how obvious it is, or in what book it is located, or whether it is contingent or timeless. None of these things matter to our evaluation of whether a statement or belief is true or false.

“Absolute truth” sounds like a better version of truth – and I hear a lot of Christians use the phrase with that thought in mind. After all, no one would even think of saying someone was “absolutely dead.” So why do we feel we should add this modifier to the idea of truth?

As you yourself said, there are no degrees of truth – just as there are no degrees of dead. A person who is dead is dead. There is no “mostly dead” and “all dead” (Max the Miracle Worker not withstanding). “Absolutely” adds nothing to the status description “dead.”


June 24, 2009 @ 3:36 pm #

There is no “mostly dead” and “all dead” (Max the Miracle Worker not withstanding).

Hoo, hoo, hoo! Look who knows so much!

June 23, 2009 @ 6:55 pm #

Just to clarify, and I’m doing this solely to avoid practicing law – its still the workday here – “absoulte” means “without exception or qualification.” The better phrase, if any phrase is an appropriate modifier of the term “truth,” is “objective.”

And I agree whole heartedly that relativism is completely and utterly false. Its what Philosophers call “self referentially incoherent.”


June 23, 2009 @ 11:47 pm #


Just want to say what a well done article. Long as it is, it covers a huge topic very efficiently. Thank you for your excellent summary of thoughts– not only on this topic, but the numerous other ones you put out as well. I don’t see how you do it.

June 24, 2009 @ 3:40 pm #

I don’t see how you do it.

I do this part by paraphrasing Turek and Geisler, mostly. With little bits of Lewis thrown in as seasoning.

June 24, 2009 @ 12:12 am #

To anyone still reading:

This article makes me wonder about something tangential. Phil makes reference to the moral law being more legislative in nature, rather than like a physical natural law. And then he points out that virtually everyone experiences the breaking of the moral law. And it’s that breaking of the law that has me wondering.

First, if there were no consequence to the breaking of the moral law, then in essence there would BE no law. And we’d be back where we started on the question of God. (Atheists, by limiting life to the physical, essentially limit, or even eliminate, the consequence to the breaking of the moral law. Think of the shooter at Cal. Tech suffering only the fate of those he shot.)

Second, if there IS consequence to the breaking of the moral law, then what is the nature of that consequence? If we all know there’s a moral law, and we all know the experience of breaking that law, then do we also know something else . . . which . . . we really don’t want to admit we know? Guilt, for just a tip of the iceberg example. Or something even worse.

June 24, 2009 @ 11:05 am #

I would like to point out that there are always consequences in the here and now to breaking moral laws. A wrong doer is always their own worst enemy. I’ve seen it over and over again; there will never be anything right in their lives. Unless they repent they are doomed to live ruined lives. Hell and damnation is just a continuation of choices already made. Nobody buys happiness through their wrong doing. Do not envy them for what they have; they’ve paid prices that we would not be willing to pay.

July 28, 2009 @ 5:39 pm #

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August 3, 2009 @ 10:12 am #

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August 14, 2009 @ 10:10 am #

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April 16, 2010 @ 1:49 pm #

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April 17, 2010 @ 8:26 am #

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